The six steps to cure your fear of needles before Covid vaccine roll out

THE first Brits will start getting Covid-19 jabs from tomorrow when a mass vaccination programme is rolled out.

But for some, their fear of needles is far greater than their concerns about catching coronavirus – and may refuse the life-saving jab.

Trypanophobia is a phobia of needles, and is often triggered by a painful experience with injections as a child. Or, it could be learned from parents.

Dr Sue Peacock, consultant health psychologist and author of A Pain in the Mind, said: "Often people who have needle phobia have had many blood tests or procedures as a child, so a fear of needles and injections sometimes, but not always results from bad memories of this in earlier life."

It is surprisingly common – as many as one in ten people have a deep rooted fear of needles, according to Anxiety UK, which offers advice for people with the condition.

But could be as high as 23 per cent, according to a 2012 survey in the US which asked why people abstained from taking the flu jab.

Karl Rollison, a Harley Street therapist and who specialises in trypanophobia, said: “Over the years I’ve conducted my own field research into trypanophobia.

"I make a point of asking everyone if they have a fear of needles. Take it from me, it is abundant.

“Needle phobia could well be the number one cause of premature deaths in the world.”

Some people would rather suffer all the restrictions and uncertainty that Covid has generated than receiving immunisation

Dr Rollison believes the extent to which needle phobia contributes to death is not recognised, because no statistics are collected on it.

If someone doesn’t take the coronavirus jab, for example, they may catch it and die.

But their death would be recorded as caused by Covid-19, when it fact it could have been prevented had they been vaccinated.

Trypanophobia could have an impact on ending the pandemic, if too many people refuse the inoculation, experts suggest.

How to know if you have a needle phobia

Anxiety UK says you have a needle phobia if:

  • you have a marked, persistent, and excessive fear of needles.
  • exposure to needles almost invariably provokes in you an immediate anxiety response.
  • you recognise this fear is excessive.
  • needle-sticks are either avoided, or endured with intense anxiety or distress.
  • the avoidance, anxiety or distress significantly interferes with your normal routine, occupational or academic functioning, social activities or relationships, or there is severe distress about having the phobia.

Usually injection phobia will manifest itself in 3 different
ways: physically (in that you will experience real physical
symptoms), psychologically (in that you will experience a
change in your thought patterns) and behaviorally (in that
you will find yourself behaving differently).

Speaking of the Covid vaccine, Dr Rollison said: “We all want to embrace the things that we took for granted less than a year ago but this will only happen if everyone receives it.

“Some people would rather suffer all the restrictions and uncertainty that Covid has generated than receiving immunisation.”

It’s not clear how much of the population needs to be protected against the coronavirus, through vaccination, in order for it to have an impact.

But experts have already raised concerns about the level of resistance already in the community, as much as one in five people.

Health chiefs have begged people to accept the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine if they are offered it.

Every jab will bring us one step closer to ending Covid restrictions.

But if you have a real phobia of needles, what steps can you take to make you feel better in time for your jab?

1. Ask the doctor for a longer appointment

If you are worried about your appointment to be vaccinated, tell the GP receptionist or person organising your appointment.

They may be able to give you a double appointment so you don’t feel pressured to rush the process.

2. Distract yourself

The nurse could help you cope with the procedure, for example by chatting to distract you.

Don’t worry, staff looking after you will not be annoyed, and you should not be embarrassed about it either.

You could bring a book or a magazine or look at favourite photos/videos on your phone.

Or, if you're allowed, you could take a relative or friend to help distract you or calm your nerves while you're there.

Some people find counting slowly is helpful, because the chances are, by the time you reach 10 the jab will be over.

Dr Peacock said: "Listen to a tailored comedic audio aligned to having a vaccination. When you are smiling the anxiety will be so much less."

A recent study by University of California, Irvine, found smiling or grimacing while being given an injection can make it up to 40 per cent less painful. 

3. Applied tension technique

If you feel faint at the thought of needles, you could try applied tension technique, described by Guy's and St Thomas' hospital.

For many people, fear of needles is linked to fainting or feeling faint. When the fear is triggered, the heart rate and blood pressure increase before rapidly dropping. It is this fall in blood pressure that can cause fainting.

The applied tension technique helps to increase blood pressure back to normal levels so that you do not faint.

This is how you do it:

  1. Sit down somewhere comfortable.
  2. Tense the muscles in your arms, upper body and legs, and hold this tension for 10 to 15 seconds, or until you start to feel the warmth rising in your face.
  3. Release the tension and go back to your normal sitting position.
  4. After about 20 to 30 seconds, go through the tension procedure again until you feel the warmth in your face.
  5. Repeat this sequence so that you have practised the tension five times.

If you can, practise this sequence three times every day for about a week, before moving on to facing your fear.

4. Breathing techniques

If you feel panicky, for example your heart races, your chest feels tight and your stomach churns, but you do not feel faint, you can learn a breathing for relaxation exercise.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position, with your back upright but not stiff. Let your shoulders and jaw relax.
  2. Put one hand low down on your belly. Take a long, slow, deep, gentle breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  3. Try to breathe right down into your belly, but don’t force it. Just let your body breathe as deeply as is comfortable for you. Do this for five breaths. If possible, practise this exercise three times every day for a week, before moving on facing your fear.

5. Develop a fear ladder

The scariest step is actually facing your fear.

Develop a “fear ladder” – a list of all the situations related to needles which you fear arranged in order of how much you fear them.

The situations could be; having the injection in your arm, holding a needle, touching a needle, watching someone else get an injection either in real life or on the TV, looking at photos of needles, listening to someone talk about injections, or thinking about having the injection.

Rate each situation from 1 to 10, with 1 being the easiest to face, and at the bottom of the ladder.

To climb the ladder, you will have to think out, or act out, each situation.

If a step is too difficult to overcome, you can think of ways to reduce the intensity. For example, looking at a photo of a small needle to start, rather than a large one.

Overcoming the fear ladder:

  1. Start with the least difficult item (for example thinking about having an injection, in the table above).
  2. Plan enough time so that you can stay with the fear long enough to feel your anxiety peak, stay on that level for a while, then gradually reduce. Staying with the fear allows you to see how anxiety makes you feel. Remember that anxiety drops on its own over time.
  3. Begin to use the applied tension or breathing exercise.
  4. Go into the feared situation, and stay with it until your anxiety has started to drop.
  5. Take some time to relax, perhaps using the breathing exercise.
  6. When you feel confident with one situation, move up to the next step of the ladder. You may need to practise with one situation a few times before you are ready to move on to the next one.

6. See a professional

Professionals who can help you overcome your phobia in a way that suits you.

Exposure therapy is a technique where somebody gradually exposes themselves to the situation they are scared of in a gradual manner.

It can be done at home, such as with the fear ladder described above, or with a therapist.

Behavioural exposure is an essential component of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), an intervention for all types of phobias.

CBT helps a person manage their fear or problems by changing the way they think and behave.

You can get psychological therapies, including CBT, on the NHS. But you may have to wait a while to get it.

You can refer yourself directly to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) without a referral from a GP. Or, you can also pay for therapy privately, costing between £40 to £100 per session.

You could also try hypnotherapy, which can produce beneficial effects in a relatively short space of time. But it may not work for everyone.

Dr Peacock said: "Hypnosis and self hypnosis is ideally placed to deal with this problem.

"The aversion to needles has become ingrained on the needle phobic's unconscious, as a result of some distressing past experience which left a powerful impression which then subsequently grew to a highly irrational and potentially damaging extent.

"Weirdly, it is also possible to reframe the experience of having a vaccination, turning it into a comedy sketch."

Hypnosis involves getting into a state of deep relaxation, and using visualisation techniques to explore the phobia further while you are in a trance state.

There are different types of hypnotherapy, and so another form may be to regularly listen to an audio recording created while you were in the trance state.

The NHS does not offer it, you would need to pay privately. It costs from £50 upwards per session.

In the UK, hypnotherapists don't have to have any specific training by law. It is recommended to find a hypnotherapist through the Professional Standards Authority.

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