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How to overcome needle phobia

Personal health · May 11, 2021

A fear of needles can create a sense of dread for many Canadians as they prepare to roll up their sleeves for a COVID-19 vaccine. While most needle-averse people steel themselves against a moment of pain, some are so severely phobic that it may impact their ability to seek healthcare. If this sounds like you, know that you’re not alone, and it is possible to overcome your fear.

Here are some strategies to help you or a loved one overcome needle phobia:

  1. Practice needle exposure. The book “Overcoming Medical Phobias“ by Drs. Anthony and Watling is one that I often recommend to patients experiencing needle phobia and other medical-related fears. One of the authors’ suggestions is to expose yourself to visuals of needles and people getting vaccinated in the weeks and days leading up to receiving a vaccination. I have seen success with this technique first-hand.

  2. Practice “applied tension”. In the moments leading up to vaccination, try contracting the large muscles in the body including the legs, arms and torso to increase blood flow. This is another recommendation from Drs. Anthony and Watling and it can be particularly effective for the approximately 50% of needle-phobic patients who tend to faint during vaccination1. Another defense against fainting is to make sure you arrive at your appointment well-hydrated and well-fed.

  3. Reframe worst-case-scenario thoughts. Especially in adults, needle phobia can be complex: from fear of the needle itself to the fear of the subsequent reaction that it might produce. Reactions to these fears can be intense, with heart palpitations, sweating, and a dry throat. Some people may become dizzy, sick to their stomachs, or in severe cases, some may feel like they are going to die. One strategy that can help in these cases is to consciously reframe thoughts about “the worst thing that could happen” by replacing them with a more realistic one: “the needle will hurt for a moment, and I will most likely experience no serious side effects.”

  4. Try a topical anesthetic cream. To decrease the pain of a needle in adults and children, a topical anesthetic cream can be purchased at a pharmacy over-the-counter. Simply place the cream over the injection site and cover it with a bandage about 60 minutes prior to vaccination. This can provide a fair amount of relief for those who worry about injection pain.

Needle phobia will not reverse overnight, but taking a proactive role in your healthcare by practicing some of these strategies can help restore a sense of control about the situation.

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[1] Carmin, C.2019. “How to overcome your fear of needles.” Wexner Medical Center.

Authored by:
Dr. Rhonda Low
Family physician, TELUS Health Care Centres