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Don’t get “stuck” on a fear of needles

Feel like fainting at the sight of a needle? Or, better yet, running? Fear of needles is not uncommon and is usually relatively harmless—unless it keeps you from getting the medical care that you need to stay healthy, such as vaccinations, needed medical procedures, or regular blood work to monitor health and medical conditions.

People with a fear of needles (sometimes known as trypanophobia) typically fall into two categories: those who experienceanxiety but can still tolerate a needle stick, and those who experience a strong physical reaction to needles, known clinically as blood-injury-injection (BII) phobia. BII encompasses phobia of blood, bodily injury, or injections, or any combination of those three.

If you fall under the first category of tolerable anxiety, try one or all of these potential stress-busters:

  • Take deep breaths to relax before and during the process.
  • Use distraction. Bring your headphones to listen to your favorite songs during the procedure.
  • Close your eyes during the process from start to finish.
  • Tell the medical professional up front that you're scared. They will often have comforting words or advice to offer.
  • Associate the idea of a needle stick with saving a life by donating blood at a local blood drive.
  • Ask a supportive friend or family member to accompany you when possible, to serve as a distraction and support.

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If you experience a more severe form of anxiety, you may have BII. Symptoms may include:

  • Dizziness or the feeling that you're going to pass out, sometimes at the mere thought or sight of a needle
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea

BII symptoms are caused by a surge of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which increases your heart rate and blood pressure.

"Some people report the feeling that they are going to pass out, but they never actually do because they're heart rate and blood pressure increase preventing that from happening," explains Benjamin Greenberg, MD, PhD, chief of Outpatient Services at Butler Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at The Alpert Medical School of Brown University. "However, some people actually do faint because that reaction is followed by a vasovagal nerve response that occurs when the body overreacts to certain stimuli, which then causes a sudden drop in blood pressure."

Treatment for BII requires structured exposure-based exercises best done under the supervision of a therapist. Combined with the use of anti-anxiety medications, this treatment can be very effective. Dr. Greenberg, an expert in anxiety disorders who also leads the obsessive-compulsive disorder clinic at Butler Hospital, also says research shows a technique called Applied Tension is promising for people who faint at the sight of blood or needles. He stresses that any treatment for BII should be done under the oversight of a physician. Start by talking to your primary care doctor for help and for a referral to a therapist if you're experiencing a severe reaction to injections for medical procedures and treatments that are often necessary to keep you healthy.

Source: Barlow, David H., and Vincent Mark. Durand. Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach. Cengage Wadsworth, 2009. Print.


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