‘Just looking at a needle makes my blood run cold’
By MICHAEL S. ROSENWALD | The Washington Post | Published: December 31, 2020
Armand, a 49-year-old digital marketing strategist, takes extraordinary measures to avoid needles, even the mere sight of them.
Told by his doctor he was flirting with diabetes — a diagnosis that would necessitate insulin shots —took up marathon running. For routine medical procedures, including blood draws and vaccinations, has worn a sleep mask and headphones — that’s if he can even get himself to go in the first place.
“If I see the needle, I will hyperventilate,” said, who lives in Washington, . “If I hear the person coming with the needle, I will hyperventilate. Literally just looking at a needle makes my blood run cold.”
Now, with thevaccine , images of needles being jabbed into arms are inescapable on television and social media. For the millions of adults like who intensely fear needles, the eagerly awaited moment presents an existential dilemma: Many are deathly afraid of a needle that can save their lives.
And that raises a question some psychological experts say is being overlooked amid other inoculation concerns: How many of the needle averse will avoid thevaccine and risk getting a disease that has claimed more than 320,000 American lives?
“I definitely think you’re going to see a group of people who will stay away and really maintain their fear,” said Bonnie, a , Md., psychologist who specializes in anxiety, including needle phobia. “It’s pretty powerful and scary.”
So scary, in fact, that studies show the needle averse routinely skip medical procedures — vaccines, tooth removal, blood tests — that they know are good for them.
Mary Rogers, a recently retired University of Michigan public health professor, says that between 20% and 30% of the population ages 20 to 40 fears needles. She co-authored a 2019 article in the Journal of Advanced Nursing reporting that 16% of adults avoid the flu vaccine because of it.
“I expect that this may occur with the-19 vaccine as well,” Rogers said. “If the same phenomenon occurs with -19 at half that rate, this would be a considerable number of adults avoiding the vaccine and may hinder our ability to reach herd immunity.”
In a recent survey of 788 American adults, the American Journal of Infection Control reported that fear of needles followed behind concern about side effects and the rushed development of the vaccine as the top reasons for those being unwilling to get vaccinated.
To people who can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t get a lifesaving vaccine because they fear a little needle,had this response: “Yeah, I agree with that, but I don’t have a needle phobia. For those who do, it’s just like people who are scared to step foot on a plane. They view it as just as terrifying.”
Jane Lyons, a 24-year-old affordable housing advocate in Silver Spring, Md., who has suffered anxiety attacks around needles, took to social media with a plea to the media: Stop showing pictures of needles because they are freaking out those, like her, with needle anxiety.
“It just sends a shiver down my spine when really I should be dancing with joy because the vaccine is coming soon,” said Lyons, who has skipped the flu shot and put off other medical procedures that involve needles.
Like and others who suffer from needle fears Lyons cannot trace her angst back to any one event in her life. They say the worst part of the phobia — other than actually seeing needles — is needing to justify how they could be so afraid of needles to begin with.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody who doesn’t have this phobia,” said. “But it’s like realizing your worst fear happening — like if you’re afraid of heights and now you’re falling out of a plane. That’s as close as I can give you to the sensation that happens. It’s a trauma.”
It’s so traumatic that even explaining what it feels like is hair-raising.
“Just talking about this, I’m breaking out into a cold sweat,” he said during a half-hour interview. “I hope you have all the information you need, but I’m traumatized talking about it. Oh my God.”
has never sought counseling for his needle anxiety, but psychologists say it is treatable, like other phobias, through cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at stopping a dangerous cycle in which avoiding an anxiety-inducing stimuli — in this case, needles — just makes the anxiety grow, like a snowball rolling down a hill.
“I tell all my patients with any kind of anxiety that avoidance is actually the fuel for anxiety,” said Kristin, a psychologist at the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill. “The more you avoid something, the worse it gets.”
and , the psychologist, treat needle anxiety with the gold standard of anxiety treatment: exposure therapy.
Instead of avoiding pictures of needles, psychologists steadily expose patients to more and more images of needles. They progress to using fake but realistic needles to simulate the process of receiving an injection, even using real alcohol wipes.
“You’re getting them to face their fears in a gradual and more controlled way,”said. “You gradually approach the thing that they are nervous about and begin to find ways to challenge the catastrophic beliefs that they have.”
It’s unlikely that exposure therapy can beup to meet the challenges and timeline posed by the vaccine. Exposure therapy isn’t a long process, but it’s also not quick, often taking several weeks.
Also, many psychologists who use exposure therapy have long waiting lists for appointments and have opted out of insurance programs because of bureaucratic red tape and low reimbursements.
Experts and vaccine advocates say there are other short-term solutions, including using pain-blocking gels, intentionally tensing and relaxing muscles repeatedly to induce relaxation, mindfulness, and flat-out distraction likehas done with his headphones and sleep masks.
Avoiding looking at the needle won’t help the long-term anxiety — it might even fuel it — but theis deadly and highly transmissible, meaning the short-term trade-off is probably worth it, psychologists say, to save lives and protect the public.
The pressure on the needle phobic to get the vaccine will be intense.
“I think, for the first time ever, you’re going to see phobic, avoidant individuals really getting pressure from family members, from co-workers or employers, to get a vaccine and really face their fears,”said.
The rationalizations from the needle phobic will also be intense.
“It’s really hard to compete with a phobia,”said. “They’ll say to themselves, ‘Well, if I even get , I probably won’t even have the bad version of it.’ Or that we will get to a certain point where the numbers are so low that they won’t need to get vaccinated if they hadn’t already.”
But psychologists likeand also think (and hope) that those with extreme needle fears will also engage in a different calculation with the vaccine — that they are more scared of the virus (and dying) than they are of the needle.
As of right now, that mental arithmetic is pushing and Lyons toward the needle.
“At some point, you really do need to ask: What am I more afraid of?or the needle?” said. “It’s .” And that means, “You have to put on your big boy pants, close your eyes and wear your headphones.”