Have a Fear of Needles? Here Are 3 Steps to Overcome It

Don't let a fear of needles prevent you from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Image Credit: vgajic/E+/GettyImages

Everyone has their reasons for being excited — or hesitant — about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. If you're reading this, one of your reasons for being squeamish about the shot may be a fear of needles.

Listen, getting stuck isn't exactly enjoyable, but having a fear of needles is relatively common.

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For some adults, it's a frequent reason to avoid getting a vaccine. In a meta-analysis of 35 articles published January 2019 in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, 16 percent of adults said they avoided getting the flu vaccine because of needle fear.

Past research has found that 19 and 20 percent of adults, respectively, didn't get the pneumococcal or tetanus vaccines because of this anxiety. The study also pointed out that those giving the injections may underestimate just how strong this worry can be. And who could blame them — they see needles all day!

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So, if you want to get the COVID-19 vaccine but the anticipation of getting an injection is a source of anxiety, or you think you might avoid the shot altogether, there are steps you can take to feel calmer in the face of a needle.

"There are a number of different things we can do to help people who are struggling," Joe McNamara, PhD, director of the UFHealth Florida Exposure and Anxiety Research (FEAR) Lab in Gainesville, Florida, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Here are McNamara's tips:

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1. Face the Fear

This is perhaps the scariest part of tackling a fear or phobia, but it's essential.

"An unhealthy anxiety — in this case, a fear of injection — is maintained by avoidance and accommodation," McNamara says.

In other words, if you don't do the thing you're afraid of, you'll continue to be afraid of it.

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You can take steps to get closer and closer to the goal that most aligns with what you want to do: Get a vaccine. This is done through small exposures that build upon one another. Allowing yourself to sit through each step until the fear eases will ultimately break the connection with the fear.

For example, McNamara might have a patient:

  • Draw a picture of a needle.
  • Look at that picture.
  • Look up a picture of a needle online and talk to someone about what needles do.
  • Physically look at an actual needle.
  • Touch a real needle safely.
  • Discuss the injection process.

2. Make an Appointment

Now, it's time to schedule your shot. If you feel dread about going and then are relieved it's over as you triumphantly walk out, that's totally normal.

"This is a healthy and typical response to most medical procedures," McNamara says. "The goal isn't to get to the point where going to the hospital is fun. That's not realistic. It's getting to a place where you can do what you need to do." In this case, you want to get to a place where you can carry out the steps that align with your health goals.

If you've completed the above exposure steps at a pace that feels safe for you, and you still don't feel like you can go through with the shot, then reach out to a professional for help, McNamara says.

3. Use Relaxation Techniques to Get Through It

When you're at your vaccine appointment, there are some ways to prompt your body's relaxation response to help you get through the injection, McNamara says. And this is especially important if you have a vasovagal response (aka you have a history of fainting in response to needles).

Breathe Deeply

If you consciously slow down your breathing by taking diaphragmatic "belly" breaths, you elicit a calming response. Slowing your breath slows down your heart rate, which then tells your brain that everything is OK.

When doing this, make sure you're breathing in to expand your stomach and then out to pull it back in. Need more guidance? Try one of these six types of breathing exercises to reduce stress.

Focus on Muscle Tension

Starting at your feet, tighten your muscles in that area of your body, then relax them. Work your way up your body, tensing and relaxing as you go.

This can help you relax and also distract your mind from worrying about the needle.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.
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