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I'm scared of needles, how should I approach the vaccine?

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

In this FAQ series, we asked clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher how should someone approach the vaccine of they're scared of needles. Nobody likes needles and being a little bit scared of them is actually pretty sensible, as they hurt! The difficulty arises when that fear stops us from doing what is necessary to keep us safe - like getting a vaccine that could save your life. Which is kind of ironic, as fear is supposed to keep us safe from danger. This is where anxiety comes in, as anxiety is fear in the absence of actual danger.

In other words, our brain tricks us into thinking that we cannot cope with getting an injection. We then do anything we can to try and avoid it. The longer we avoid, the more we believe that needles and injections are dangerous, even though they are not. The only real path that is open to us is to have the injection! This will get the story about the huge threat associated with needles that anxiety has been spinning in our minds shrunk down to a more manageable size. That’s easier said than done of course, but there are options open to you.

The most important step is to understand anxiety and expect it to turn up. Expecting it to turn up means that it loses the element of surprise (which can add to its impact) and allows us to plan for it. Part of this plan is to learn some anxiety management strategies to help it pass on its way more easily. Note that these strategies don’t make anxiety disappear, so this is about getting an injection WHILE being anxious, not waiting for anxiety to disappear before we give the nurse the nod. Some of these strategies are outlined in the series of short videos that you can access through our 7-day trypanophobia challenge.

With these strategies on board, there are two main ways of facing up to injections:

1) Grin and bear it

In psychology ‘speak’, it means 'feel the fear and do it anyway'. More specifically with regard to injections, the goal is to focus on how you will feel straight after it’s done (as it is only 3 seconds long!). To help you get there, it is also important to remember what resources you have available to you (aka those anxiety management strategies you’ve been practicing) and maybe even a support person going through this with you. Someone who may have to exert a little bit of pressure if needed, to help you stay the distance.

2) Break the experience into steps or in other words “graded exposure”

This can be in real life or equally useful through VR exposure therapy. In both cases, it is worth acknowledging the battle fought with anxiety, so make sure you have a treat in store to celebrate your bravery. Rewards aren’t just for kids, you know!

For some, the use of medical aids such as ointment that freezes the skin so that the needle hurts less, or medication that can reduce the level of anxious arousal if it feels completely overwhelming can be appropriate (on the advice of your doctor).

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