A Prickly Fear of Needles Is Super Common—Here Are 9 Expert Tips To Move Past It

Photo: Getty Images/Marko Geber
Trypanophobia, or a fear of needles, is defined by an excessive or irrational fear of medical procedures that involves needles and/or injections. It may develop as a result of a negative medical experience, genetic factors, learned and modeled behaviors, or having a sensitive or reactive temperament—and it's pretty common.

"Many children are naturally afraid of needles and medical procedures, yet, over time, they often develop a tolerance of medical procedures involving needles," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. About 20 to 30 percent of young adults experience some sort of needle anxiety, according to one meta-analysis published in the National Library of Medicine. But that number is reduced from 20 to 50 percent of adolescents and the majority of children. "In some cases, however, certain individuals find that their fear does not subside. When the natural fear of needles intensifies and becomes excessive or irrational, a diagnosis of trypanophobia is made," Dr. Manly adds.

Experts In This Article

Want to learn more? Below, get clear on the key factors that contribute to having a fear of needles and then how experts suggests to handle and overcome it. Because, well, doing things like being able to get your seasonal flu shot without the added side of panic or fear is super necessary for being able to lead a healthy and well life.

3 factors that contribute to having a fear of needles

1. Negative first or secondhand experiences with needles

"Most phobias are learned," says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. With a fear of needles, "it can be from your own bad experience or from hearing about others' bad experiences, or from others' negative attitudes about needles and vaccines."

So maybe you have a rough early memory of getting a shot—or heard about a friend's traumatizing experience. "For example, a child may be naturally emotionally and physically sensitive; this type of child may feel deep pain at the prick of a needle," says Dr. Manly. "If a child with this nature is not given appropriate preparation for the procedure along with emotional support and empathy, an intense fear of needles may result."

2. A psychological resistance to something stabbing you

It took me, like, a trillion tries to learn how to put contact lenses on myself, and that's because there's a natural protective reflex to keep things out of your eyes. A similar principle applies with getting shots and needle pricks.

"There's a primal reason for trypanophobia, and it’s that we usually think of getting stabbed as a bad thing," says Dr. Daramus. "With needles, we're getting poked with a sharp object on purpose. Why wouldn't that feel a little unnatural?"

3. A physical sensitivity to needles

There's obviously an ouch factor when it comes to jabbing yourself with something pointy. Like, it isn't going to feel like a delicate butterfly kiss. But depending on your pain tolerance, the agony of a shot can actually be unbearable.

"Some people are ‘hard sticks’—their veins are hard to find and a blood draw or an intravenous shot can be can be a long and painful process," says Dr. Daramus. "Intramuscular shots can be painful as well, and all of that will trigger that primal fear of getting stuck with a sharp object."

7 common symptoms of trypanophobia

The biggest symptom of trypanophobia is feeling anxiety around the experience of getting a shot, and that can manifest in so many different ways. "You might have insomnia before a needle procedure, panic around the time of the procedure or even a few days before," says Dr. Daramus. "You might feel dizzy, nauseous, and feel a strong urge to escape. In some cases, you might have to look away from TV shows with needles, skip past descriptions of injections in books, and you might not be the best choice to accompany a friend to get a shot." Similarly, you should probably not be someone else's escort when it comes to drawing blood if you have nerves around the experience.

Generally speaking, though, symptoms of trypanophobia could include:

  • A racing heart
  • Labored breathing
  • Nausea
  • Feeling flushed
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • In rare cases, "an individual may actually faint as a result of a vasovagal reflex response," says Dr. Manly.

9 tips to overcome a fear of needles

1. Be proactive about the pain

If pain is a factor in exacerbating your fear of needles, consider asking a medical practitioner if it's possible to apply a numbing agent to the area in advance.

2. Keep the needle out of your eye-line

"Ask the practitioner to keep the needle out of view, as the sight of the needle alone can trigger a negative reaction," says Dr. Manly. "Look away from the site where the injection will take place, both before, during, and afterward."

3. Try to slow down your breathing

We tend to hyperventilate when we're panicked, so we want to slow down that process while we're still in the waiting room (or hell, even before that). Dr. Manly recommends practicing soothing breathwork techniques, both before and during the procedure.

4. Keep your mind off needles during the follow-up

"Distract yourself prior to the procedure by talking with a friend, doing crossword puzzles, or engaging in a mind-absorbing game," says Dr. Manly.

5. Identify and confront needle imagery that makes you nervous

"Make a list of things that bring up trypanophobia, like medical shows and movies, a photo of a needle, or a toy needle from a children's medical kit," says Dr. Daramus. "Rate each one on a scale of one to 10. Start exposing yourself to the things that bring your fear to a 2 or 3. When you've mastered the level two or three fears, move on to the fours and fives, and then up the scale until you can face the actual needle a lot more comfortably."

6. Fuel up with the right drinks before hand

"Avoid caffeinated beverages and products containing caffeine before the procedure; caffeine tends to increase anxious feelings and stress," Dr. Manly says. "Drink herbal tea such as chamomile before the procedure to soothe your body and mind."

7. Put your nose to good use

"If scents are permitted in the medical setting, use a lavender essential oil to reduce anxiety," says Dr. Manly. "If scents are not permitted, breathe in a lavender oil before entering the facility."

8. Repeat a calming mantra before and during the procedure

"Repeating a custom-made mantra such as "I am safe. All is well. I am loved," replaces the anxious thoughts that want to invade," says Dr. Manly.

9. Seek a professional for help

"The treatment of any phobia is usually exposure therapy," says Dr. Daramus. "Often with a therapist's help, you expose yourself to your fear in small amounts."

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