“I don’t ever remember not being needle phobic,” says Alice Morgan, 27, a dance teacher from north London. “Even as a toddler, I remember screaming and trying to run out of the GP surgery – but I have no idea how it started.”
Morgan lives with needle phobia (also known as trypanophobia), an intense fear of injections that leaves her shaking and like she can’t catch her breath. “My breathing goes short and shallow and I can’t stop the rising panic,” she says. “I lose all sense of rational thoughts. I feel so hot and dizzy, like I might pass out.”
It’s thought one in 10 people in the UK are affected by needle phobia. With 18 million in the UK having had their first dose of the Covid vaccine, a potential 1.8m people with needle phobia have already endured the jab – and those who haven’t are worrying whether they’ll be able to handle it. Hypnotherapy Directory has seen a 1,600% increase in users reading advice on vaccination phobias over the past four months.
Morgan has had the first dose of the Covid vaccine, as she runs an elderly support group. “I was quite excited to get it so early and to be part of history,” she says. But the night before getting vaccinated, the fear set in.
“I couldn’t sleep at the thought of what would happen,” says Morgan. “The pandemic made me a bad sleeper anyway, but I panicked and worried all night.”
Phobias are a coping mechanism – often projected from an experience or someone else’s experience, according to Natasha Crowe, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist. “We go into fight or flight mode, the body starts to react, we look for the threat around us. And that threat could be a needle,” she says.
To make matters worse, talk of injections is unavoidable for those with the phobia right now, as the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has taken centre stage.
Dr Robin Bon, 42, based in Leeds, has feared needles since he was nine years old – to the point where he’ll avoid injections and blood tests as much as possible. When faced with them, he’ll feel sick, sweat and experience dizziness.
“If there are any procedures with hypodermic needles on TV, I have to look away, and I even feel uneasy when people talk about phlebotomy,” says Bon, who is an associate professor of chemical biology at the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, University of Leeds.
“Funnily enough, I work in a cardiovascular research institute – being exposed more to pictures of, and information about, the cardiovascular system has desensitised me a bit,” he says. “However, during tutorials for students over the last few years, I must have played a video of a cannulation at least 10 times, and so far I’ve always managed to avoid watching where the needle goes in.”
Despite this fear, he was happy when he received the call to have the vaccine – it’s important for him to be protected as he and his wife are carers for their son, who has complex special needs. “We don’t have anyone else who could look after him, so I’m not sure what we would do if we got ill,” he says.
On the day of the jab he asked the nurse not to show him the needle or procedure. His kids kept him distracted, too. It was “ok,” he says, “perhaps slightly more intense than a flu jab.”
So if you’re in the same position as Morgan and Bon, how can you get through it? The good news is it’s possible to overcome and manage needle phobia. There’s also a nasal spray vaccine in the works for coronavirus, which has been successfully tested on animals and will soon move on to human trials.
Bon’s way of dealing with the jab was to weigh up the pros and cons. “Without it, I – or my family – risks getting ill and might then need to deal with a lot more needles and procedures,” he says. The thought of ending up in hospital and having a whole range of procedures done because of catching coronavirus is a lot more frightening to him than having the Covid jab, he adds.
For Morgan, limiting exposure to images of the vaccine was key. She also called a friend during the hour-long bus ride to the vaccination centre, which helped calm her. “The whole system at the vaccine centre was brilliant,” she says. “The volunteers and all the staff were so friendly and understanding – the opposite to other medical professionals when I’ve been needle phobic before.
“They all stressed to me how brilliant it is that I’m so phobic, but facing it anyway, which is something nobody has ever said to me before.”
There were points which exacerbated Morgan’s phobia: being in a vaccination centre meant she was heavily aware there were lots of needles in one place. The cubicles had curtains, but she could see through gaps which made her panic.
“The second it was finished, I felt absolutely fine again and the panic and fear disappeared,” she says. She waited around a bit after, as staff were worried she might faint. When fear is triggered, heart rate and blood pressure increase, then rapidly drop. It’s this fall in blood pressure that can cause fainting.
Now she knows what to expect, Morgan plans to take headphones and music with her when she goes to have the next dose. “I’ll also make sure I’ve eaten and drank beforehand to reduce my chances of passing out,” she adds.
Other things that might help if you have a phobia of needles:
Remembering you are in control.
Repeating positive affirmations. Crowe suggests someone looking to conquer their fear should think: ‘why am I doing this?’ and ‘what is this about for me?’ It’s about framing it so you tell yourself ‘I’m keeping myself safe’. You can use positive affirmations in this way, repeating something like ‘I’m calm, I’m comfortable, I’m safe,’ she explains.
Relaxation. Crowe advises ensuring you’re in the most relaxed state you can possibly be before leaving home. Allow yourself to make sure you’re connected to your breathing, listen to a piece of meditation, some music or do some self-hypnosis, she recommends. “Make sure that you’ve eaten something and drunk something - wellbeing factors are really important,” she adds.
Check out this NHS resource on overcoming a fear of needles.