A fear of needles is extremely common. It’s also totally treatable.
While they’re a necessary part of life, getting a shot or vaccination isn’t usually on anyone’s top 10 favourite activities list.
For some, however, getting an injection is more than a simple annoyance, and a fear of needles can turn a basic doctor’s appointment into an anxiety-ridden experience.
In fact, if your fear takes the form of a phobia, it can even cause you to opt-out of medical care.
Some essential vaccinations, as well as certain medications, require an injection or intravenous delivery.
Biologics, a newer class of organically-derived drugs that can be used for common conditions where no other treatments were previously available, can only be given via injection or infusion.
That means that as much as you may want to avoid needles, sometimes there’s simply no way around getting a needle. The good news is the fear of needles can be treatable.
Ahead, a physician and a psychologist share with Allure some strategies for managing some of the anxiety ahead of your appointment, as well as how you can take some of the pain out of getting a shot.
Behind the fear of needles
Rana Mafee is an integrative neurologist at Case Integrative Health in Chicago. She also practices family medicine in Westchester, Illinois. Mafee says that fear of needles is “certainly nothing to be ashamed of.”
Somewhere between 11.5 million and 66 million people in the US experience fear of needles on one level or another, so you’re not the only person who starts to get queasy at the idea of an injection. “The first thing to remind yourself is that you are not alone,” says Mafee.
It’s also important to figure out if what you’re experiencing is a fear or a phobia. Being afraid of needles is one thing, but if you have actual trypanophobia (a phobia of needles as they relate to medical procedures), your treatment options will look different.
“A phobia is a fear that is so great that it begins to impact your daily living in a significant way,” says Mafee. “Fear, however, is a natural and normal human reaction to the presumption of danger.
It can be unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it doesn’t tend to notably impact the way you live your life.” If you are so afraid of needles that you cannot bear to be around them to the point where you will avoid medical care that you need (such as bloodwork, vaccines, or biologics), you may be dealing with trypanophobia.
According to Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist in New York City, not only does fear of needles make total sense, there may also be a reason for it.
She tells Allure it’s likely that evolution has conditioned humans to fear objects resembling needles as a survival instinct. In the not-so-distant past, being punctured by any sharp object was almost always related to death or a serious injury.
Of course, modern medicine has given punctures a purpose. “The irony of this instinct is that needles today are involved in the protection of the immune system and the prevention of further injury,” Romanoff says.
Tips for self-soothing
Once you’re ready to deal with your fear of needles, start with small, actionable steps you can take prior to an actual care appointment.
A fear of needles might not require professional treatment, but finding a self-calming strategy that works for you can make a big difference.
Romanoff says that writing out a simple pro and con list could be helpful. “Due to evolutionary reflexes, needle phobia [or fear] is often concerned with short-term or momentary pain,” she explains.
But that pain is temporary, while the long-term benefits of an injection can be long-lasting. By being intentional about the way we perceive the advantages of our necessary encounters with needles, we might become better equipped to replace our negative associations of needles with positive ones.
For Mafee, breathwork is a strong place to start addressing your fear of needles. Prior to an encounter where you need to get an injection, you can utilize your breath as a way to calm yourself down and manage anxiety that’s building.
“I love the ‘4-7-8 breathing technique’, which involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds.
Another one of my favourites is the ‘four-square breathing technique’, which involves exhaling for a count of four, holding your lungs empty for a count of four, inhaling at the same pace, and holding air in your lungs for a count of four before exhaling and beginning again,” says Mafee.
When to call in the experts
If you suspect that what you’re dealing with is actually trypanophobia, you may need to enlist a mental health professional to help you to manage it. Your care provider may recommend exposure therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or both.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy will involve working with a professional to unlearn the negative ways that your body and brain perceive needles.
You may also work to disengage from things you’ve been told about needles that have morphed into a fear response.
Exposure therapy involves encountering your fear, in small doses, in a controlled environment. You start with the least anxiety-provoking way of facing your fear and work up toward what’s most difficult for you.
“This gradual process would involve starting with the least anxiety-provoking stimuli, like viewing a covered syringe, then the needle, then holding the needle, and so on as you move through the progression of the fear hierarchy until the most feared behaviour is reached – receiving the shot,” says Romanoff.
“No matter what your level of fear is, know that there are options. No one likes getting a shot, but you deserve to receive appropriate care, without great emotional distress,” says Mafee.
This story originally appeared on Allure US