What is Trypanophobia?
I lay my head back and try to take some slow, deep breaths. The lab technician approaches me, trying to calm my nerves. She makes small talk while wrapping the tourniquet around my arm. I try to relax, but my heart is racing. I look away as she approaches my arm with the syringe, praying this won’t be painful. I’m unable to look at the long needle about to be inserted into my vein. The agony of the anticipation of the blood draw leaves me drenched in a cold sweat.
If that sounds like your experience with needles in a medical setting, you may be suffering from Trypanophobia (pronounced [try-pan-oh-fo-bee-ah]). It can be defined as the fear of needles, having your blood drawn, getting an injection or shot — basically, any procedure involving a needle. It is also sometimes referred to as Belonephobia and related to iatrophobia and dentophobia. It could fall under the diagnosis of Other Specified Phobia (F40.298) or Other Situational Type Phobia — F40.248 (DSM-V).
- In a study including 1,024 children & 883 adults, 24% of the adults and 63% of children reported a fear of needles.
- The same study showed that 7% of the parents and 8% of the children were so afraid of needles that they wouldn’t get vaccinations.
- Over 12 billion vaccinations are given annually worldwide.
- This published article stated: “for each U.S. birth cohort receiving recommended childhood immunizations, around 20 million illnesses, and more than 40,000 deaths are prevented”.
- a fear of needles and injections typically affects women more than men
Why are you Afraid of Needles?
In my research, I came across many explanations and theories as to what causes this fear. I have narrowed it down to two main categories: vasovagal syncope & a conditioned response.
Whoa, talk about a mouthful. So what is Vasovagal Syncope (pronounced [vay-zoh-vay-gul sing-kuh-pee])? According to the Mayo Clinic, this phenomenon is caused when you are exposed to a certain trigger, such as a needle. Your heart rate and blood pressure can drop suddenly as the vessels in your legs dilate and pool with blood. This lowers blood flow to the brain, causing you to become dizzy and even faint.
Interestingly enough, this phenomenon can run in families. A study published in 2014 found that 26% of first degree relatives (i.e. siblings, parents, children) were affected by this phobia. I see this evidenced in my own life — my younger brother and I both suffer varying degrees of vasovagal episodes when we have blood drawn.
I had a doctor’s appointment recently that ended in a blood draw. It had been a while, so I mistakenly assumed I’d be alright and opted to say nothing about previous experiences. Let me preface this example by saying the intro paragraph to this article…was me. As the technician placed her syringe and began to draw blood I became extremely dizzy, nauseous, and came dangerously close to fainting. Honestly, I hadn’t been this overwhelmed by a blood draw in ages.
As the tech called for assistance, she made me lay back and take some deep breaths. They moved me to a reclining chair and admonished me to warn them next time so they could adequately prepare. Twenty minutes later — after having chugged some apple juice and eaten a granola bar —I fled the clinic. All the while assuring them that I could drive home safely. Definitely a humbling experience.
You’ll see this as a common thread through most of our articles, but often something situational or traumatic can lead to your intense fear. For example, if you deal with vasovagal syncope, extreme physical distress and even embarrassment are associated with needles. Case in point, when I decided not to tell the lab technician how I responded to needles & nearly caused the whole clinic to rush to my aid.
Another small study of children showed that too many vaccinations between the ages of 4-6 can lead to trypanophobia. Although, this only applies if the children in question were given too many painful shots in one day. Unfortunately, with the CDC recommending 4 shots in this age range (plus the annual influenza vaccine), the possibility of multiple shots in one sitting is high. If this isn’t done carefully, the pain associated with these shots can lead to an intense fear of needles that continues throughout a child’s life.
What is the number one reason trypanophobia differs from other phobias? People suffering from trypanophobia can faint, which can lead to physical harm. Here are some other common symptoms:
- Nervousness & avoidance behaviors
- Feeling like you’re about to overheat
- A cold sweat
- panic attack
How to Overcome your Fear of Needles
Alright, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: how do you get over your fear of needles or injections.
Does your fear of needles stem from a childhood experience? Perhaps too many painful shots in one day, or being forced as a child to get a shot? If this is the case for you, here are some suggestions:
- At your next doctor visit, ask them to help you become familiar with the needles they use to give shots or draw blood. Ask questions about how the procedures are done and what to expect. Read some brochures. The more you understand, the more you can overcome the fear of the unknown.
- Schedule another visit for a needed shot, such as the annual flu shot. Warn the nurse that you are afraid of needles, but are working on overcoming your fear. Medical professionals are trained to be patient and helpful & understand that a large amount of the population fears getting vaccinations.
- If the previous suggestions feel like too much too soon, start with doing research at your own pace at home. Narrow down the root of your fear. Look at photos of needles, research the efficacy of shots and what they protect you against. Know why they can be important — chase away germs!
- If you have a child who is due for vaccinations, try to space their appointments so they don’t receive all of their shots in one sitting. This will help reduce the incidence of pain and lower the chance they will develop an ongoing fear.
Applied Tension Technique
If you deal with vasovagal episodes like I do, you have to overcome an embarrassing physical response. The applied tension technique can help.
- This is a simple technique that you can practice anywhere. Sit somewhere comfortable and tense the muscles in your body for 15 seconds. You should feel warmth on your face as you are causing an increase in blood pressure. Relax. Repeat this 5 or so times, and continue daily for about a week. Utilize this technique during your next shot or blood draw, but relax the arm that receives the needle. The uptick in blood pressure should be high enough to keep you from fainting.
For more in-depth treatment for trypanophobia, you can begin counseling. A therapist can develop a treatment plan and give you more one-on-one treatment and tools to overcome your fear. Do an online search to find counseling near you.
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