Preparing for ‘a jab’ if you don’t like needles
The number of people receiving a coronavirus vaccination is rising every day, which is good news for all of us. For anyone with a phobia of needles, however, the idea of being called for their ‘jab’ might also make them feel a bit apprehensive.
Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder, triggered when someone encounters a particular object or situation that they believe to be more dangerous than it is. As a result, they actively avoid the trigger, or anticipate it with feelings of dread, which can interfere with their ability to function normally. This can also reinforce the phobia, and even prevent them getting necessary medical care.
A fear of or anxiety around needles is known as a blood-injection-injury phobia. The feelings could relate to the injection itself, and concerns about pain or the ‘intrusion’ of the needle. Some people may have had an unpleasant experience in the past. Others may be worried about fainting, panicking or crying. For some, the thought of blood is the problem, which could be due to an evolutionary safety response to potential threats.
Unlike other anxiety disorders, which drive the heart rate up, blood-injection-injury phobias can lead to fainting because blood pressure rises and then drops. This was a symptom experienced by Charlotte, who had a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with Ieso for her phobia when her GP suggested she needed a blood test.
She explains: “I had a placement in a hospital while I was studying, and whenever I was exposed to any needle or cannula I’d feel dizzy, nauseous and clammy – and I did faint a couple of times. It would become really severe if I thought of having a blood test myself; I couldn’t imagine ever being able to do it. Even touching the place on my arm where the needle goes in made me feel really unwell.”
Charlotte’s CBT treatment began with a formulation, when her therapist worked with her to map out the links between the thoughts, feelings and behaviours she was experiencing, and how these became a ‘vicious cycle’. “We unpicked the symptoms, both physical and anxiety-related, and the negative thoughts these led to – like ‘I’m going to embarrass myself by fainting’,” Charlotte says. “I’d try to solve this by looking away or going to lie down, but this avoidance actually caused the anxiety to build higher.”
The therapist moved on to teaching Charlotte techniques and strategies to help her manage her feelings of anxiety. Here are some ideas that might help you if you’re feeling nervous about getting your coronavirus vaccine.
Spot the difference. If your phobia started with a traumatic experience, try listing all the differences between that situation and the current one. For example, if a student nurse made a mistake while taking blood when you were a child, you could note that you’re an adult now, this is a vaccination rather than a blood test, and the person administering it will be trained and experienced.
List the pros and cons. Having the vaccine may be a bit unpleasant, and there’s probably other things you’d rather be doing! But addressing your anxiety now will not only allow you to get vaccinated, it will also help you in future if you need to have dentistry treatment or take your child to the GP, for example.
Gradually expose yourself to the trigger. This is about challenging your negative thoughts by exposing yourself in a managed way to the trigger. If you have CBT you won’t ever be forced to confront your fear, you will have consent over everything that happens.
Charlotte found exposure quickly made a difference. “I started by touching my arm, then moved on to pictures of people having blood taken. Your anxiety will climb, but you keep looking, and it reaches a peak – and then drops. Next time you look, the peak is lower. I was able to bring my anxiety down in an hour. Rating it was helpful, as I could see the peaks and troughs, and the progress I was making. Watching videos was next, and this made me dizzy and tearful. But again the anxiety reduced each time. It took just one week to go from not being able to touch my arm to actually having blood taken!
“I’d never pushed myself to test my negative thoughts before – I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to cope. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done! But I never felt unsafe and I didn’t want to faint or panic once – I thought ‘I can actually do this!’ Anxiety is a feeling, and you can manage it.”
Practice applied tension. This is a practical technique that prevents fainting by keeping your blood pressure from dropping. You build tension in the body by tensing your arms, chest and legs for 10-15 seconds – and then releasing. It’s a good idea to practice this for five times a day in the run up to a blood test or vaccination so you’re ready to apply it.
If your phobia is causing difficulties in your life, or leads you to avoid things you want or need to do, CBT has a very successful track record in treating the symptoms. Find out more about what having CBT for phobias with Ieso involves.