One overlooked cause for vaccine hesitancy is a fear of needles.
Every single day we are flooded with content about the COVID-19 vaccines. Whether that be from seeing the overused syringe footage on the nightly news, to people posting pics on their socials after getting their doses, or having vaccines being the centre of social conversations, there is really no escaping the topic these days.
On one hand, this is a great sign that the health promotion messaging is getting out to the general population, and hopefully means that more people will take a positive step toward protecting themselves and others against the virus that has held us all to ransom for so long.
On the other hand, for people like me who live with a needle phobia, it has meant around 18 months of constant triggers, heightened stress and anxiety, and having the mental burden of consistently thinking about the inevitable vaccine.
Words like “jab” are triggering, and unfortunately have become the mainstream buzzword, and watching the news is an impossible task, because of the sudden influx of explicit injection imagery that could be shown at any given time. It’s not uncommon for me to experience phantom pains in my upper arm or the crook of my elbow when someone gives details about an injection, to feel nauseous and sweat from thinking about needles, have heart palpitations, nightmares and intrusive thoughts about needles, or to end up in tears on the floor after becoming anxious and overwhelmed. Before trialling different types of therapies, just uttering or hearing the word “needle” would send me into a phobic spin!
I spent years avoiding medical tests and treatments that might require a needle, and avoiding doctors is not unusual for people with a phobia. As you may assume, living with a phobia is exhausting, and the exposure to needle-related material in our day to day lives here in Victoria is consistent; if you start to keep an eye and ear open for anything that is needle-related in your day, I guarantee that you will be surprised with how saturated our current environment is with it!
If I had a dollar for every time I have heard “oh yeah, I don’t like needles either”, I would be one very rich woman. It is incredibly natural and normal for humans to have an aversion to injections, but phobias differ from fear or not liking something. Although phobias are enduring fears that are irrational by nature and are significantly out of proportion to the actual threat (yes, I know that needles are “no big deal”!), a phobia is a psychological condition which comes under the umbrella of an anxiety disorder, and they significantly impair a person’s life.
Specific Phobias are described within the DSM-5, which is the leading manual for mental conditions widely used by psychologists, and they can be toward many things, like animals, or enclosed spaces for example.
With the vaccine rollout now being extended to most of our population, allowing those from the age of 12 years to now be able to receive one of the three currently available vaccines, and the Andrew’s Roadmap being reliant on increased uptake of the vaccine, there has been more discussion than ever of my most feared stimulus. For many with a phobia, it can feel as though we are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place – on one hand wanting to do the right thing and be safe, and on the other, knowing that we will have to go through something that is absolutely dreaded.
Despite my severe phobia, I am proudly booked in for my first dose this week.
I know that I will have many tears, some sleepless nights, and I know that those in my social circle are going to be dealing with an anxious version of me this week. However, I know that the relief that I will feel the moment that I have been vaccinated, will be worth it. Relief that it is over, that I am one step closer to being protected and protecting those around me, and relief knowing that I have helped to get us a little closer to reopening our state. And, mainly, relief that I only have to do it one more time!
For those with a phobia, who may be looking for some tips on how best to navigate the situation, engaging in some therapy is a great starting place for those who have time and access. Gradual exposure therapy is a common and effective way to reduce a phobia, and involves being exposed to lesser feared triggers in a safe environment (perhaps looking at a cartoon image of a needle for a few seconds), and eventually being exposed to things higher on the list of triggers (like perhaps being in a room with a needle). Hypnotherapy is something else I have tried, which has helped to reduce my anxiety in the weeks before a vaccine.
Using a numbing cream can help to reduce the sensation, and after a family friend recommended Emla cream, I will never go without again.
Having a trusted family member or friend there has been a crucial part of my process, and as strange as it may sound, not having a post-vax band aid has helped immensely, as I don’t have the constant reminder of the vaccine, and I don’t have to deal with taking it off afterward.
If you need extra help like I do, chatting to your GP about some medication options to help reduce your anxiety around needles could be a great idea.
Finding a nurse that is non-judgemental and kind also makes more of a difference for us needle-phobes than people may think, so a big shout out to all of the nurses who have made us feel safe and validated.
If you have a friend with a phobia, you can also help them out! Ask them what words they are okay with you using. In my experience, words like “jab” or “shot” can be more triggering than words like “vaccine”, because they are more explicit and can elicit an image in your mind. Also reducing the amount of vaccine-related chat when you are around them can help to give them a safe space to exist.
With all of the talk about needing to hurry to go out and get vaxxed, there has so far been little consideration for those who are dealing with a phobia of the needle itself within the mainstream. I hope that anyone with a phobia who may have stumbled across this little piece of mine feels validated and seen.
For information on how to book your vaccine, head to this link, or contact your local GP or pharmacy to see if they are part of the roll out!