Getting vaccinated can trigger a real fear for many people—but there are ways to work past it.
For weeks, public health experts have talked about the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19. And, really, you only need to glance at the latest data to see how incredibly vital this is to ending the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people are being diagnosed with the virus each day, and nearly 400,000 have died, with many more expected.
But it’s one thing to know you should get vaccinated against COVID-19 and it’s another to actually do it. And that can be a real challenge for people with a fear of needles.
Known as trypanophobia, this is a real fear that impacts about 25% of adults, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The fear can be so bad that about 7% of adults actually avoid getting vaccinated because of it.
But if fewer people get vaccinated against COVID-19, the less of a chance we have of achieving herd immunity, or the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection. In the case of COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) stresses that a “substantial portion” of the population will need to be vaccinated in order to “safely” achieve herd immunity.
And then there’s your personal risk to consider. “Getting COVID can be really serious and potentially fatal,” Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Health.
Odds are, you already know all of this. What you really need is a little information and guidance to help you push through your fear so that you can protect yourself, your loved ones, and the general population. Here’s what you need to know.
What is trypanophobia, exactly?
Fear of needles is a “specific phobia,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association, a guidebook for mental health professionals. “A specific phobia starts as a reasonable, healthy, and evolutionarily advantageous alert that something dangerous may be going on,” Petros Levounis, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service at University Hospital, tells Health. “However, this initially normal defense mechanism, which is intended to protect the individual from harm, can intensify and eventually cross over to a debilitating psychiatric disorder.”
Trypanophobia can be a problem for a range of medical procedures, including vaccinations, having blood drawn, needing IV fluids, and getting anesthesia.
There’s not a lot of literature on where trypanophobia comes from, but there are some theories that it may be related to a survival instinct that keeps you from wanting to have your body punctured by anything. Fear of the pain and fear of the unknown can also play a role, clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Health. “There is something unknown to you being put into your body—we are not in control,” he points out, noting that can be terrifying for some.
There’s also data to suggest that this fear is more common in children, who often outgrow it, though some don’t.
How can you know if you have trypanophobia?
Symptoms can vary, but one meta-analysis of available scientific data published in the journal SAGE Open Nursing, listed the following as signs of trypanophobia:
- A sudden increase in heart rate and blood pressure at the sight of a needle
- An immediate slowing of the heart and decrease in blood pressure
- Extreme unexplained anxiety
- Preoccupation with a procedure that involves needles
- Panic attacks
So what can you do if you have trypanophobia and want to get vaccinated?
It’s easy for some people to say “just do it,” but if you have a real phobia, you know it’s not that easy. Still, know this: It’s doable. Plenty of people say on social media that they overcame their fear to get vaccinated.
But, of course, this is you we’re talking about—not some random person on the Internet. Here’s what you can do to help get through this, and what to know before, during, and after you get the vaccine.
Before you get vaccinated
First off, book the appointment. “More doing and less thinking is an important way to overcome your fear,” Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perlman School of Medicine, tells Health. Then, try not to think about it.
Worrying—and even obsessing—over your upcoming shot isn’t going to do you or your mental health any favors. That’s why Dr. Mayer recommends reminding yourself that you’ve (very likely) done this before and you’ve ended up OK. “Think of history—you have had injections before,” he says.
It can also help to keep reminding yourself of the enormous pay-off of getting vaccinated, Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety, tells Health. “Focus on the purpose of why you’re doing this—to save your health and your life and restore normalcy—and less on your fear of needles,” she says.
If you tend to faint when you see a needle or are worried about fainting, Dr. Levounis recommending trying a technique called “applied tension” therapy. To do it, tense the muscles in your arms, torso, and legs and hold that tension until you feel warm. Then, release the tension and wait for 20 to 30 seconds for your body to return to normal. (The idea is that you can use this technique if you start to feel faint when you see a needle.)
Also, it doesn’t hurt to keep reminding yourself of this tidbit from Dr. Watkins: “It takes about one second” to actually receive the vaccine.
While you’re at the vaccination site
You may have to wait a while, Dr. Clark says, and that’s an important time to distract yourself. “Distraction is fantastic,” Dr. Mayer says. If the vaccination site allows it, he recommends bringing a friend. If not, pull out your headphones and watch a video on your phone or listen to some loud music—whatever you can do to block out the current scene is ideal.
Also, let the nurse know that you have a fear of needles. Odds are, they’ve seen this before and may have some personal tricks that can help. Also, it helps for them to have a tip-off that you have a risk of fainting during the experience.
Before you get the injection, you can practice diaphragmatic breathing (where you breathe deep into your diaphragm) or even squeeze something like a stress ball, if you have one. You can also just keep on listening to music or watching a video.
During the actual event, “Don’t look at the needle. Give it as little space as possible,” Dr. Clark says.
After your vaccine
You just conquered a phobia, and that’s a big deal. Dr. Gallagher recommends giving yourself a serious pat on the back (you did it!) and treating yourself to something special, like a new bag you’ve been eyeing or ordering takeout, to celebrate your feat.
Also, it doesn’t hurt to use this as a teaching moment for yourself, thinking about how you made it through the experience unscathed. And, since this vaccine requires two doses, Dr. Gallagher recommends that you start planning now for what you’ll do to treat yourself after you get the second vaccine.
If you’re really, really struggling to get yourself to a vaccination site, Dr. Clark says it may be useful to speak to a mental health professional. They should be able to offer up personalized techniques that can be helpful for you.
Whatever you do, experts stress the importance of getting vaccinated. “The vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from COVID,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health. “You should not let a needle phobia be a barrier to your health and wellbeing.”