Techniques to Help You Overcome a Fear of Needles
Mar 01, 2021 Lisa Fields
"People catastrophize that the pain from the needle is a terrible, horrible, fearful thing that threatens them, and that's actually misplaced belief."
— Robert A. Chernoff
Since the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for distribution in December, countless photos of people getting vaccinated have appeared in the news. While they're intended to be inspiring, the images may be nerve-wracking for people who fear needles.
"Needle fear is not limited to childhood—it definitely can afflict adults," says Robert A. Chernoff, clinical psychologist and director of health psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Cedars-Sinai. "Avoidance of needles is the key thing that a person with needle fear tends to do and that can be very unhealthy for people who really need a procedure involving injection."
About 10% of Americans are highly anxious about needles, and 3% to 4.5% experience what is known as blood-injection-injury phobia at some point in their lives.
"When you look at the U.S. population," Chernoff says, "that's millions of people."
Needle-related anxiety may sway you from getting the COVID-19 vaccine, annual flu shots or doctor-ordered blood work. It may have a greater impact if you need injections to manage a chronic condition. Fear of needles can put you in a difficult spot: You must choose to regularly provoke your anxiety to care for yourself or slack on your health management.
Fortunately, several strategies may help you overcome needle-related fears.
There's no reason to watch what's happening.
"If patients know that they have fear of needles, I always tell them, 'Don't look at it,'" says Imee Dia, a clinical nurse in Employee Health Services at Cedars-Sinai. "In two seconds, we're done."
Deep-breathing techniques, visualization or other relaxation strategies may help.
"Think you are at the beach," says Gemma Reantaso, a clinical nurse in Employee Health Services. "Then I inject the medication or the vaccine, and then it's done."
Find a role model
If possible, schedule your vaccination with a trusted friend who doesn't fear needles. Ask your friend to go first and watch their reaction.
"You see how they handle it and that they're not freaked out," Chernoff says. "You say to yourself, 'You know what? I could do that, too.'"
Numb the site
If the pain associated with injections causes anxiety, ice or over-the-counter lidocaine cream may dull the pain and ease your mind.
"They said it helps," Dia says of some of her patients. "They numb their arm a little bit, and then they don't feel the shot."
Expose yourself to needles
Deliberately exposing yourself to your fears—in this case, needles—can make them less intimidating. Exposure therapy might begin with viewing pictures or videos of needles and progress to watching someone else get a shot.
"The person is gradually shown these things that evoke anxiety," Chernoff says. "Over time, the anxiety will come down and they'll learn, 'Oh, this is actually not dangerous. I can survive this.'"
Chernoff says exposure therapy can be provided by behavior therapists who specialize in treating anxiety and phobias. But people with mild fear may be able to guide themselves through the steps.
Reframe your thoughts
Instead of focusing on momentary discomfort, recognize that injection pain disappears quickly but the positive effects last much longer. A therapist may help you rethink this issue.
"People catastrophize that the pain from the needle is a terrible, horrible, fearful thing that threatens them, and that's actually a misplaced belief," Chernoff says. "They may have developed these beliefs from unpleasant experiences earlier in their lives. When they are taught that their original thinking out of childhood is more founded in fear than fact, that will take away a lot of the fear."
Tense your muscles
If you faint around needles, your blood pressure and heart rate may rise, then fall suddenly from the sight of a syringe, causing lightheadedness. A research-proven technique called applied tension may help.
"Patients who become faint at the sight of needles can learn to tense their muscles, including the abdominal, leg and arm muscles, because that raises their blood pressure," Chernoff says. "It actually counteracts that sense of wanting to faint."
To learn the technique and manage other symptoms related to fear of needles, it can be helpful to find a therapist who treats phobias.