What to do about Needle Phobia or Fear of Injections

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1. Do you have a fear of needles?

  • Do you dread needing a blood test?
  • Are there places you'd love to vacation but you can't face the necessary vaccinations beforehand?
  • Do you avoid dental treatment because it requires pain killing injections?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above then you probably have a needle phobia (trypanaphobia). So what do you do about it?

The first step is to answer two important questions. The first considers how much you really want to beat this fear and why you want to do so now.

The second question seeks to understand the root cause of your own particular version of this phobia. In the case of a needle phobia it is important to be aware of the thoughts behind your fear as this can vary from person to person. Not to be aware of this can undermine any progress to overcoming it.

2. Why do you want to beat your needle phobia just now?
(the importance of motivation)

Everyone tends to think that if we have a problem such as this then we must want to get rid of it and we should do so. That isn't necessarily the case.

Many people with phobias of various kinds just live with them usually by avoiding coming into contact with what it is they fear. People with fear of heights tend to avoid going to places that trigger their fear. Those who dislike snakes don't go to the reptile house at the zoo or watch the exotic dancer who uses them in her act. Those with an elevator phobia take the stairs.

So this first question is a very important one because it looks for motivation.

Do you really want to work through the necessary steps to beat this fear at this point in your life? Why have you decided to do this now?

Overcoming a fear of needles or of injections is reasonably straightforward provided the person is sufficiently motivated to try. Many people live with this problem simply because their desire to overcome it has never been great enough.

A phobia can never be unlearnt if the sufferer lacks motivation to do what needs to be done. So you need to be honest with yourself as to whether you truly want to do this now? Do you have the necessary motivation to see it through?

Below I give an example of a friend of mine, we'll call her Louise, who had avoided foreign travel all her adult life if it meant she needed vaccinations. That is, until she started dating a pilot who could get her free flights to exotic places...

3. What are you actually afraid of?

Not all needle phobias are the same. The second question that needs to be answered is about the root of your particular fear.

For me there are three, often quite separate, root causes for a fear of needles. 

3.1  Fear of pain during injection

People who give injections will confirm that by far the vast majority don't watch the needle go in. It seems that for many of us, even though we are able to accept having an injection by focusing elsewhere, we are averse to actually watching the process.

It is a comonly held belief that an injection is less painful if our minds are on other things - if we deliberately distract ourselves. This is, after all, an approach in everyday use to minimise pain. Research published in 'Pain' in 2012  and summarised here confirms this.

This research also notes that our life experiences of different types of pain produced by coming into contact with various situations involving different kinds of needles will have influenced the degree of pain we expect to feel.

My own early experience of injections

I still clearly remember one afternoon at the age of five, being taken by my mother, to a clinic. I think I knew it was to receive a routine booster vaccination and I was apprehensive as to what would happen. I had no recollection of any that I'd had when younger.

A lady in a white coat led me into a small room. On the window ledge was a huge glass jar stuffed full of dolly mixture sweets.

The lady removed my left arm from the sleeve of my jumper and told me to look at the jar of sweets. She then said she'd tell me when she was going to do it... Gullible as I was as a five year old, I believed her. The next thing I knew was that she'd stuck the needle into my arm.

I started to cry - more out of a sense of betrayal than pain.

I think the lady in the white coat then took the lid off the huge jar and offered me some sweets - but to me, that didn't make up for what she'd done! 

From that moment on I dreaded injections until I trained myself otherwise in my late teens at the insistence of my dentist. I wasn't really aware all those years of what it was I was afraid of. It was just that the idea of someone sticking a needle in me provoked an automatic fear response.

3.2  Dislike of the thought of needle puncturing skin

People with injection phobia hardly ever watch the needle going in. If they haven’t already fainted, they are too busy trying to control their developing panic feelings to calmly watch what's happening. Generally it is not so much the thought of pain that matters to them but rather the fear of fainting because this has happened to them on previous occasions.

For many people the idea of sticking a needle into flesh and puncturing it is unnatural.  Even those, like myself, who don't (now) have a needle phobia as such, choose to focus on other things and not to look. Interestingly, however, I am able to watch a vet stick a needle into a horse or a dog. I think this is probably because their fur hides their skin surface so it doesn't really seem as if the needle is penetrating flesh.

This was the same root cause experienced by my friend, Louise, who started dating the pilot. I came up with an approach that allowed her to desensitise herself to her squeamishness at her own pace.

Steps taken by  Louise to overcome her dislike of skin puncturing

First she learnt and practised the techniques of Dead Weight and Calm Scene. These were vital so she could then reduce any increased anxiety that started to creep in when she faced her fears bit by bit.

This is possibly the most important step because defusing the danger warnings given by the survival instinct and replacing them with calm is the only way it is going to learn that they're no longer needed.

I then gave her a syringe and a needle.
Her next step was to become comfortable with just looking at it, then to holding it.

She had to do this for a short time each day whilst remaining totally dead weight and calm. Once she could hold the syringe without any degree of anxiety we moved on to the next step. (Thus she was teaching her survival instinct that a syringe was no longer linked to a startle warning and danger but was associated instead with calm.)

an orange
Orange peel showing pores resembling human skinOrange peel showing pores resembling human skin

I considered the peel of an orange to be sufficiently similar in appearance to human skin.

Once Louise was calm about handling the syringe, the next step was for her to inject the orange with it. Again she had to remain dead weight and calm all the time. She also imagined that the orange represented human skin.

Once she reached this stage her fear responses started to disappear very quickly and she went off on her travels having had all her necessary vaccinations without a problem.

The approach described here is basically the same for any irrational fear. The important element though is always motivation.

Nobody will put themselves through this process if they don't want to overcome their fear enough. Louise had had her fear for many years without adressing it because she had found ways of getting around it. It was only when she started seeing the pilot that the lure of free foreign travel was powerful enough for her to finally face it and overcome it.

(You can read a step by step account of how anxiety responses such as phobias are learnt in the first place by reading the Causes of Anxiety section on the website - or - you could have these delivered to your inbox by signing up below)

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This course is FREE in return for signing up to receive occasional updates from Anxaid. Over eight days it leads you step by step through the six factors and is easier than trawling through the pages on this website as the emails can be read anywhere at any time or printed out for reference.

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3.3  Blood phobia and needles

Whilst new developments may provide a solution for those whose fear is of the needles themselves and/or the pain caused by them, they offer no solution, at present, for those who dread having blood taken.

Feeling faint or even fainting at the sight of needles is simply the panic response of the survival instinct which has linked blood with danger and raised arousal. I once went to donate blood and only got as far as having my thumb pricked before I had to leave for fear of fainting!

Once fear has been linked with the sight of blood it takes quite a sustained approach to unlink it again.

But again the approach to overcoming it is the same as for any other irrational fear. 

4. Are injections becoming a thing of the past?

There are currently several developments which focus on alternatives to injections within the field of medicine. One of the main reasons for this is the needle phobia suffered by many who need regular injections. The most notable example being those with diabetes who require regular injections of insulin. One approach for this is based on a system of pressure jets.

Other failures on the part of the general public to have injections which could save them from possible serious illness include flu vaccinations for those at risk.  One development is that of administering vaccines through skin patches which are covered in tiny dissolving micro-needles.

These patches can be administered by the patient in their own home and it is hoped will encourage more people to have vaccinations which they were previously reluctant to submit to due to a dislike of needles.

Such approaches also reduce the possibility of needlestick injuries to medical staff administering injections. 

5. Summary

6 steps to overcoming a needle phobia

1. Identify exactly what it is you're afraid of e.g. pain, skin puncturing, blood... etc

2. Teach your brain a Calm Scene image and practise Dead Weight

3. Break what you fear into simple steps from easiest to hardest - this is creating a hierarchy

4. Start with the easiest step and practise for a short time each day facing it while remaining dead weight and refocusing on your calm scene every time your arousal increases.

5. Move on and do the same with the next step when you can do the previous one without any raised negative arousal (anxiety)

6. Repeat step by step until you have completed all the steps and your phobia is cured.

Having identified the aspects you dislike, you then gradually expose yourself to them one by one, all the while remaining calm and dead weight. This is known as following a desensitization hierarchy. 

The idea is to retrain your survival instinct that each step isn't really dangerous. You do this simply by not joining in with anxiety when the startle warning comes along.

My books - "Panic Attacks" and "Can't Meditate, Won't Meditate" as well as my online course all give more detailed descriptions about overcoming reactions such as these - provided you have the motivation.

Buying the online course from the website is less than the cost of a single session face-to-face with a therapist and there's a money-back guarantee. Surely that's worth a try?

Other Common Phobias

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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Fears and Phobias
  3. Fear of Needles