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How to Get Shots if You’re Terrified of Needles

After an annual physical a few years ago, my doctor recommended blood work. While this is an entirely normal thing for patients to do once in a while, I tend to turn even the most minute task into a Process. This was no different.

I’ve been told on more than one occasion that my veins are some combination of “slippery,” “little” and “buggers.” These comments all mean the same thing — that my veins are difficult to hit — and typically culminate in a digging expedition, usually in both arms, until the phlebotomist finds a well that hasn’t run dry. In the meantime, my cottonmouth escalates to panting and my clammy palms sweat profusely. Eventually, unconsciousness sets in.

It’s safe to say I struggle with needles. A lot of people, in fact, react viscerally to the sight of a phlebotomist armed with a sterile syringe: In one 2009 study, 22 percent of patients surveyed at a primary care practice in Australia reported a fear of needles. Other research estimated that about 63 percent of children and 24 percent of adults are scared of needle procedures, including vaccinations and blood tests. This aversion can result in patients avoiding medical care altogether. 

The distress usually manifests in a few ways. Intense fear and anxiety are par for the course; sometimes there’s also fainting. The fainting component, caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure (vasovagal syncope), can be genetic.

Dr. Amy Baxter, a pediatric emergency physician and pain researcher, determined that some cases of needle fear can be traced back to a traumatic childhood event. The more vaccines a child between the ages of 4 and 6 received in a single medical visit, Baxter found, the more likely they were to report a fear of needles five years down the line.

Reactions from parents and doctors also contribute to needle fears in kids. If a doctor, for instance, claims that a needle “won’t hurt a bit” and then that needle does hurt a bit, the child might lose trust in the pro holding it. Additionally, if parents are nervous, children can absorb their anxiety.

Explainers

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As a result, subsequent vaccinations or blood draws can be met with fear — fear of the procedure and fear of the pain. “Fear is like ramping up the volume on your alarm system,” Baxter says. “People perceive more pain when they have fear.”

The good news is that we don’t have to live with fear and pain forever. Here are a few expert-approved tips to help patients young and old cope with needles.

Figure out what you’re really afraid of

A fear of needles could be related to pain, the sight of blood, the prospect of a foreign material entering your body or, in my case, passing out. “Another person might be afraid because they’re not sure of the different steps of the procedure,” says C. Meghan McMurtry, a clinical psychologist at the University of Guelph. “There can be different reasons you’re afraid, so the treatment needs to determine what it is you’re afraid of.”

Do you need pain-management skills? Exposure-based therapy? Physical exercises to keep blood flowing? Getting to the root of the fear is the first part of managing it.

Increase your exposure

Becoming familiar with needles, even if that means bingeing House, MD, can help normalize them. For those with extreme fear, experts suggest an exposure therapy regimen in which a professional slowly introduces the patient to needles. This process should begin with more abstract methods, like exposing the patient to photos of the fear source. “If someone was really afraid of the look of the needle, we might show them pictures in a book,” McMurtry says, “eventually graduating to sitting close to a needle.”

Baxter says that real-life needle experiences should get easier once a patient has endured three not-so-great needle scenarios.

Lessen the pain

Let’s face it: No one really likes getting a shot. It hurts. People who only have moderate anxiety over needle pain, or who’ve already accepted their fear and increased their needle exposure, can use pain-management methods to make the process more tolerable.

“There’s a tendency in our culture to say, ‘No pain, no gain,’ ‘It’s just a little pinch,’” McMurtry notes. “It’s not particularly helpful. There’s no reason you need to feel significant pain from a needle procedure. If we managed pain from the get-go, we probably would have many fewer adults afraid of needles.”

One easy pain suppressant is a topical anesthetic, applied 30 to 45 minutes before the needle breaks skin. Baxter has also developed a product called Buzzy. The bee-shaped tool, which can be used by children and adults, vibrates while simultaneously emitting cold. This helps block pain by confusing nerves at the injection site.

Whichever method of pain management you prefer, McMurtry stresses the importance of self-advocacy. If you want topical anesthetics, go ahead and lather some on. If you just want to look away while blood is being drawn, that’s your prerogative. “Everyone deserves management of pain from needles,” she says. “If someone has a really high level of needle fear, you need a different approach from someone who doesn’t have such a high level.”

Distract yourself

This goes beyond just looking away from your arm during the procedure, though that helps too. If you can focus on another task, such as counting the number of panels on the ceiling or answering a series of simple math problems prompted by a friend, then you’ll be less likely to feel the pain. “The focus part is really important because, while you’re getting the injection or the needle or the IV, the more you pay attention to that, the more it hurts,” Baxter says.

The key is to make sure the distraction task can be completed in between five and 15 seconds. A simple “How many fingers am I holding up?” is too easy, whereas attempting to find Waldo is too hard. During a recent visit, Baxter’s son counted the number of confetti specks in a tile on the floor of the doctor’s office.

Tense your muscles

For anyone who passes out, it’s especially important to keep blood pressure up. McMurtry suggests continuously flexing the leg and stomach muscles for 10- to 15-second intervals, interspersed by brief releases. Baxter mentions “giving yourself a handshake” and pulling your arms in opposite directions. “That move increases the amount of blood that goes into your heart temporarily,” she says.

Stay hydrated

Before a needle procedure, Baxter recommends drinking 16 ounces of water or a caffeinated beverage, which can help keep blood pressure raised.

Talk to the staff

No medical professional will judge you for freaking out at the sight of a syringe. “A lot of people have mistakenly thought that you don’t want to draw attention to it or ask about it,” Baxter says. “That increases the shame. It doesn’t help mitigate the problem.” Instead, if doctors and nurses are aware of your fear, especially if you get lightheaded, they’re more likely to accommodate your needs by suggesting you lie down.

Being open to communication and setting reasonable expectations are part of the process too. “Certainly we don’t tell people it’s not going to hurt at all,” she says, Then if it does, you’ve lost any kind of credibility. It’s important to be realistic.”


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Show Comments (37)
  1. Haily Weis

    What if you are so scared of needles if one goes by you and you run out of the room what will the doctor do??

    1. Sofia Solano-Arango

      Trust me, I do that all the time. They force me down on a table and I scream like a 2-year-old. It’s so embarrassing.

      1. Ash

        Yeah that what happens to me! I don’t know what to do about it but maybe sometimes I think about something happy but even that I still sometimes cry 🙁

  2. Alan

    You have no idea of the fear. I am so beyond the fear that it has now been diagnosed as PTSD, after 50 bloody years of living with it. Most doctors think it is a joke, some nurses openly laugh. I am that zero.1 of individuals who are beyond help, and no one gives a damn!

    1. Beck

      Hello Alan I do give a damn. I’ve been avoiding needles almost 20 years. So I know how it is. Most people do not get it. Medical professionals should really be trained about needle phobia.

      1. Sofi

        I completely agree

    2. Jennifer

      Me to I have a 0 pain tolerance due to I’m in pain 24 hours a day 7 days a week

    3. Caitlin

      THANK YOU YES! Honestly I think its a byproduct of overly aggressive medical staff manhandling us when we were small and helpless. Tell the medical staff?! They won’t laugh at you?!! What crack are they smoking! This is why this garbage advice doesn’t work on the ones who are as bad as us. I’m sorry! I know I’m ranting! But after decades of therapy, that completely cruel and barbaric exposure therapy worsening my symptoms and just not being listened to I’m at my wits end! Please for the love of god can someone put some real thought into this?! Especially when we’re entering a stage when this will one likely be a mandate and two, be a recurring encounter for god knows how long. Does anyone understand what kind of torture this could be to people in our positions?! And what makes it all the worse is just how unrelatable they find us. I can see it in their faces. They have NO idea what’s going on in my head. No matter how I stress it I can NOT get most people to understand. It’s degrading. I try my best to do what’s right, and I try to be good to people but this is like the one thing I was never able to overcome. No matter what I did and who I asked help from. I don’t know what to do.

  3. Lorelei

    I’m getting 5 shots tomorrow and I have phobia of needles and I’m having a panic attack so tomorrow I am going to try this

    1. Dakota

      I know how you feel, good luck

  4. peter

    most medics don’t get it or just think your a problem, they should be trained to reconnise we have a distinct phobia (typanophobia) and waiting in the surgery just adds to it, i have walked out to later return and tryed to explain but seemed to be greeted with hurry up we have other people to see , no one seems to care

  5. Dakota

    When they say the needle will barely hurt or not hurt at all, THEY LIE….. IT HURTS SO FRICKING MUCH!!!!!! I had to get a procedure done in February, and I was crying before they put the needle. I wish I could avoid needles for the rest of life, but I still need my injections to go to school. I feel like a little kid the way I scream in pain

  6. Tracey

    This article pisses me off. It completely trivializes the terror of needle phobia and over simplifies ways to overcome it. Such bull crap. Why don’t doctors just give patients a pill to knock them out or laughing gas? My dentist does it for me because I have a fear of the dentist. Works beautifully. I don’t understand why general practitioners refuse to do this. They have NO sympathy.

  7. Maddie

    I am petrified of needles, my palms get all sweaty and i feel lightheaded. I am going to turn 13 soon and i’m afraid that thy will really hurt. If anyone knows what 13 year-old hots feel like plz tell me! I]Be honest because no one else is honest about shots.

    1. anonyous

      I am turning 13 soon to and I can not stop thinking about the shot myself because when my older sister went my mom came home and told me that she squeezed her hand so hard because it hurt so much and I am petrified to go. and it has been haunting me.

      1. Rylee

        I have to get mine today and they are going to really hurt. I used to run around the room and cry and then they would hold me down. There not to fun…

  8. Clare

    I’m pretty sure a lot (ok, maybe all?) of those in the comments are afraid of needles, as I am. But I seem to have a different reaction. When faced with situations that I particularly fear (eye appointments, VACCINATIONS, etc.), I start to laugh until I cry and can’t stop. The moment the nurse steps into the room with the tray of syringes and sorts, I start bursting into a giggling fit. Now, this isn’t because I think the situation is funny; it’s the contrary. Does this also happen to anyone else, or is it just me? I’m taking shots in the process of enrollment in a new school and I feel that my fear of shots will isolate me from others because all my other peers seem to have a strange tolerance for shots.

    1. Giorgia

      I’m the exact same I hysterically cry before during and at least the 30 mins after shots. And when I know I’m going to have one coming up I have panic attacks thinking about it.

  9. Harley

    While I didn’t find the advice helpful (same things I’ve heard to do for years), it was nice to see that my trauma is valid. I had to get allergy tested 3 separate times as a kid (63 pokes to the back each) and seeing that it has shown that kids who go through that kind of stuff do have a phobia felt nice for me.

    But, I do wish that doctors would be willing to give some kind of anxiety meds to help with anxiety. My dentist will give me a Valium to help calm me, but the doctors won’t give me anything despite seeing me, going on 16, break down, kick, scream, anything because I have to get a shot.

    1. Scarlet

      I have a similar reaction to shots as many have stated in previous comments. I have an EXTREME FEAR of needles of any kind (just typing “needles” makes me tense and worried) and when encountered with a needle in the room that I am in, I can’t control my desperate crying and escaping reactions. I don’t know what to do- I HAVE A FREAKIN SURGERY TOMORROW! Does anyone have any strategies (that actually work, unlike the ones in this article) that help them while they get a shot? PLEASE RESPOND SOON, I NEED ADVICE BY TOMORROW!!!!!

      1. Audrey

        how did it go ????????

  10. Joe Blobby

    You write an article about a fear of vaccine shots – which go into the muscle – then address a fear of IV blood tests which go into the vein. Not hepful.

  11. Liv

    I have my double year 9 needles next week. I haven’t been able to sleep and I’m genuinley terrified. I think it’s more the thought of knowing that I’m letting myself get hurt. When I ask for advice or google advice it’s just nonsense. ‘It’s just a poke, it lasts for 2 seconds, try not to worry’ – of course I’m going to worry. It wasn’t my choice to have a fear of needles. When I got my second year 8 one, teachers from the classrooms upstairs came down to see what was happening because I was screaming so loud. If anyone’s had them can you tell me some more about them? The only reason I’m getting them is because if I get the illness that they’re trying to protect me against, I’ll have to have a lot more than 2.

  12. cass

    Honestly, while the article didn’t offer any advice I hadn’t heard; it helped me kind of pinpoint why I’m afraid without being able to get better. My phobia started around when my sister became afraid of needles, but she managed to get over it. I think it’s interesting thinking about distrust in doctors, because I now have 3 piercings (nostril, upper lobe, and helix/upper cartilage) and I never really was able to pinpoint why it didn’t bother me. I think it’s because of the fact that my piercer never sugarcoated how much it would hurt and she was never super pressuring. She made sure I knew it was my choice and that no one would be upset if I backed out. I think doctors should take notes. I think the big issue is while people are genuinely riddled with anxiety, they see our terror as a schedule inconvenience, which just creates a disconnect and feels like they’re invalidating the phobia which we can’t control. My dentist prescribed me a singular Xanax pill for before my wisdom teeth removal, so let’s hope it works

  13. anonymous

    Good to know there are people that share my feelings (:

  14. Felicia Davis-Burden

    It’s about taking control. I’ve had a needle phobia all my life. Yesterday I had my first flu jab in over 40 years. I asked the male nurse to sit me down and keep me talking. We both griped about people not wearing masks on the bus, I breathed deeply and it was over in seconds. I just felt a bit queasy, so I sipped my water bottle under my mask. The nurse was so understanding. Try to keep talking. Hope this helps, and No, you’re far from alone! Good luck everyone.

  15. J

    Good to see that there’s a community of people that have similar fears as me. I’ll be part of the early rollout groups for the COVID vaccine in the US and I’m just getting really nervous/anxious thinking about it. I’m glad that I’m not alone in these feelings.

  16. Broken hearted

    I am 61 and have had a fear of IM INJECTIONS since I was very young.
    I have avoided them or not went to the dr when I should have over the many years.
    I ended up having 20 surgeries in 11 years time with too many to count hospitalizations.
    Believe it or not I got absolutely no IM INJECTIONS through out that complete 18 years of my life.
    I finally told my only dr that I ever TRULY trusted about this. He never would do or attempt a IM on me but I was ok with anything that doesn’t involve my muscles being injected.
    My trusted dr did have to put cortisone in my wrist but he always used a BRAND NEW NEEDLE IN FRONT OF ME…AND HE ALWAYS ADDED MARCAINE TO MY WRIST INJECTIONS AND ZERO PAIN!
    He just retired!!!

  17. Barbara

    Phobia of needles and age 75. Very embarrassing, yes. Terrified is not the word I would use, I feel I go into shock. I can’t sleep for days before a needle. Can’t sit in the dentist chair when he said he will be right back. Haven’t seen a dentist for years. Sometimes they have to put something in my mouth after a needle so I won’t break my teeth, I am shaking so much. As a child I had to go for a needle every evening for 10 days. My mom had heart surgery when I was young and they made a mistake with a needle and burnt most of her leg away her veins in her arms were not good and then had to work fast and overloaded the needle with Liberfed and burnt most of her leg away. They did save her life. I took care of her when she came home and I watched her suffer. She didn’t sue the Dr. they did save her life. She couldn’t walk for years and when she did she had no balance. I can’t get over being afraid on needles and will not stand on line to get the C. Vaccine with many people near me and I might scream and shake leaving the curtain between myself and all the people around me. Can’t do it. If anything the one shot but can’t find where it will be given and will not go if many people are near due to being embarrassed. No special set-up for people Phobic to needles. Why isn’t this being addressed.

  18. Annie

    Actually terrified to get the covid jab today. I honestly think most of the fear comes from people not understanding my reaction to it, my fear of it. Feeling like you’re being ridiculous is what makes it so much worse. When I got my wisdom teeth removed a few years back the nurses acted like I was such a massive inconvenience and rolled their eyes at me when I had a panic attack. It wasn’t my fault they couldn’t find a vein in an hour. Finally the surgeon came in and was visibly angry with the nurses, talked me down and got me out within seconds. I think all it takes is really someone caring enough. As for genetics, my dad is the same way about this stuff – thanks a lot, dad. Someone said they go into hysterics- my sister does this! Weirdly enough, the article wasn’t as helpful as reading all the comments underneath of people sharing how their fear manifests. If I can remember I will post later about my experience.

  19. Annie

    Hello! Posting an update of how I got thru it and how the experience was for anyone else who’s considering getting the covid (specifically Pfizer) vaccine. Basically before you do anything it’s a good idea to introduce yourself to the tech or nurse, make friendly conversation just to establish that you’re nice enough to care about them, so that they can feel open to returning that same level of care to you. I told the nurse I don’t handle needles well and have passed out almost every time I’ve had a shot in my adult life. Really? Really! I made sure to keep the conversation going; breathing in thru the nose/out thru the mouth, slow but not holding my breath, and flexed my leg muscles and wiggled my toes to focus on something else. And then the key is that I tricked myself into thinking it was the tiniest needle in the world, small enough to be only seen by a microscope. And damn if that didn’t do it for me. Yes, I could tell I was getting it done, but I tricked myself so well that in the moment the pain was so small. The best part about this is how FAST it is. It’s so fast. Absolutely not dreading the second dose. I hope this helps someone else out there who is struggling with the thought of having to do it. You can do it, you’re not ridiculous, and you are not alone!

  20. Anonymous

    A few months ago I went to get my flu shot vaccine, I didn’t have a needle phobia and I was perfectly calm and not scared at all. I stood up after getting my shot and I passed out face first and broke my front teeth. I now have such a terrible phobia that just reading about needles or talking about needles wakes my eyes water and my palms get sweaty and my heart rate increase. My phobia has gotten so bad that I feel I would rather get sick then get a shot. The thing that drives me crazy is that deep down I know that I have literally no reason to be scared of a needle, and I don’t know how to convince myself to not be scared.

  21. Leslie Bialik

    I’ve never volunteered for an IM shot in my 70 years on this planet. I’ve runout of doctors’ offices and lied in order to avoid getting one. They hurt a lot and cause pain for a week afterwards. Then I found ShotBlocker. This is such a simple device that utilizes the pain gateway theory. It’s a small piece of plastic with raised bumps on it. It’s shaped like a horseshoe. You press it on the arm then give the injection in the center space. There is no feeling of a needle going in at all because there’s so much skin stimulation going on at that site. The hard pressing keeps you from tensing up the muscle which means there’s no pain after the injection. I had to get my COVID shot and I tried this device. I felt the solution being pushed into my muscle and it hurt. But after the needle was removed, I felt absolutely nothing at the injection site. I also had absolutely no pain or soreness of any kind afterwards, either. It changed my life! I’m going in this week to get up-to-date on my other vaccinations. Please, please, please try ShotBlocker if you hate needles. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve felt no pain or soreness after an IM injection.

  22. Aleea

    I love the part where it says no Heath care professional will judge you…..oh heck yes they do! I have been banned from two oral surgeons because of my panic attacks. And when I went to the ER for a kidney infection, I wouldn’t let them put an IV in and the nurse and dr talked crap the whole time.

  23. Savannah

    I just want to thank Annie for what she said, even though she’ll probably never read this. Getting the Pfizer shot is exactly why I’m on this site, and your message was so genuinely helpful and caring, I actually teared up. Thank you, just thank you.

  24. Courtney

    Getting my covid vaccine on the 13th. Crying every time i think about it for more than 5 minutes unfortunately, and thats at least 4 times/week lately :(. Annie’s first comment explained exactly what makes it all worse for me, and i appreciate the update she made. I’m unfortunately completely terrified of needles. I think having the nurses that do my 2 doses be a bit kind and compassionate could help a ton. Whenever they arent (and thats usually every time), i end up crying as soon as they walk towards me and start talking. It’s like i can sense they dont want to take the time to properly help me through the fear BEFORE giving me the shot. So then each time i get one its just as hard or even harder than the last time. I can handle dentist freezing needles, because my dentist took the time to talk me down and through it. I wish they could give vaccines in your gums instead, im also terrified because the thought of the needle going into the muscle in your arm of all places..just no 🙁

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