Photo: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
You are excited to be vaccinated. You simply cannot wait to return to an iota of normalcy, to go outside without being afraid of contracting a deadly virus. But there’s just one problem: You are terrified of needles.
Don’t worry, you are not alone. Various studies have shown that 16 percent of adults avoid getting a flu shot because they are afraid of the jab, 22 percent of adults fear needles, while as many as 10 percent of the population suffer from a needle-phobia-related anxiety disorder. This is a common problem, and you shouldn’t let it prevent you from getting vaccinated. I asked people who use needles in their everyday work — a piercer, some nurses, and psychologists who counsel needle-phobic patients — how you can quell your fear and crush the virus.
Kirsten Janusewski is a piercer who works at Studio 28 Tattoos in New York and encounters a needle-phobic customer at least once a day. She likes to walk her clients through the procedure step-by-step so “they aren’t scared or just sitting there wondering when it’s going to happen.”
“I never have the needle in my clients view when it’s time to pierce, either, because this will just make their hearts start to race even more,” Janusewki explained over email. “I like to instruct my clients to take a long, deep breath in and long exhale out as I do the piercing. Breathing helps tremendously!” She finds that it’s very important to carry on light conversation with her needle-phobic clients to distract them from their fears.
Meredith Blair, an Oregon nurse who works in a hospital surgical unit, has found that thoroughly explaining what she’s doing and then talking “about literally anything outside of the hospital walls” is a good strategy to get her needle-phobic patients to calm down. “Right before giving the shot, I say, ‘Here we go, the medicine distributes better if the muscle is not tense,’” she said. “This has worked every time. Then afterwards, I praise them like hell and give them a make-believe lollipop or some other treasure. I get it. It’s scary, and it hurts.”
For anyone fearing vaccination day, Blair’s first piece of advice is quite simple: Take a benzodiazepine like Valium or Ativan to calm your nerves. (“Have a driver if you get blotto’d on benzodiazepines.”) If you don’t have access to those sorts of pills, she suggests taking the day you get the vaccine off from work. “Try to think of it as therapy (duh); focus on how it can save you and your loved ones lives,” she said. “Talk it out if need be with trusted friends. Get nurses or doctors involved if you literally cannot do it. Try not to be ashamed of the phobia — everyone has fears, and that’s OK.”
Dr. Ryan Douglas, a psychologist at the Anxiety Treatment Center of Austin, has been working with two needle-phobic patients who want to get the COVID vaccine. With both of them, he has them “very clearly focus on a goal that is related to their values (e.g. being able to visit family more safely, feeling safer at work or school).” He said that his clients being able to watch videos of people getting vaccinated on social media has been helpful, so they know what to expect. “It could have the opposite effect for some clients who are less ready in the sense that they might feel overwhelmed by seeing more injection imagery in the news,” he warned, but in his experience, this has been an effective strategy.
Douglas’s biggest piece of advice is to start working on your anxiety before it’s your turn to get the vaccine: Establish what your preferred vaccine site would be and come up with a plan. “[This] may be empowering and helpful,” he wrote in an email, “even if the plan cannot be followed perfectly in the end.” Also, he emphasized that you don’t have to completely eliminate your fear to get vaccinated, but instead, “get the vaccine despite [your] anxiety and panic.”
Douglas’s colleague Dr. Marianne Stout suggested role-playing as a way to mentally prepare for getting vaccinated. “Role play multiple times with a friend/loved one — even if they just use a pen or play syringe from a kid’s toy doctor set,” she said. “I did this with [my daughter] Lucille in preparing for her flu shot this year, and it worked well.”
As Dr. Diana Damer, the founder of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Austin, said that she often tells her patients: “You have to be willing to take some small risks in order to overcome the biggest risk that you are facing — which is that your anxiety disorder will continue to keep hindering you in your daily life.”
Rawnie Ramirez, a registered nurse who works in the cardiac and ICU step-down unit in a California hospital, sometimes encounters people who are afraid of needles. She observed that the majority of her patients are elderly, and they tend to be pretty blasé about needles, while middle-aged and young patients are more likely to be afraid. “My trick is to not build it up or explain too much,” she said of giving shots. “I always tell them to close their eyes to relax and turn their head the other way.”
“I think the fear is always in the lead up,” Ramirez noted, “and not the actual process.”