We all have fears. Like bellybuttons, blind spots, and Steve Bannon bobbleheads (no? just me?), they’re omnipresent in our lives. Who doesn’t get clammy hands and heart palpitations at the thought or appearance of some perceived bugbear or another?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 9.1% of American adults had a “specific phobia” last year, and 12.5% experience one at some point during their lives. The NIMH defines a specific phobia as “an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Although adults with phobias may realize that these fears are irrational, even thinking about facing the feared object or situation brings on severe anxiety symptoms.”
While I can’t say for sure that I meet those diagnostic criteria as I haven’t been officially diagnosed, everything about that description tracks with what I know about my relationship with needles. In fact, before receiving the first of my two Moderna COVID-19 shots, I fretted about that needle for weeks. It didn’t consume my thoughts 24/7, but it was a lingering houseguest that frequently popped its head out of the basement to taunt me.
I’m not alone. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Dr. C. Meghan McMurtry, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, cites the widespread fear of needles as a likely demotivating factor for some of the vaccine-hesitant—one that isn’t getting nearly the attention it should.
My fears are legion. In no particular order, they include snakes, public speaking, the public (i.e., social obligations, such as dinner parties), and major disruptions to any of my daily routines. But with the possible exception of snakes (what the fuck are they, anyway, and what kind of sociopathic god would create these vulgar, bitey meat-socks?), the big one for me is needles.
Why am I afraid of needles? That’s a good question, and I don’t really have an answer. It may have something to do with early medical trauma (I had a tonsillectomy at the tender age of 5, and the memories of it aren’t pleasant), but that’s almost beside the point. The point is, my aversion to vaccines and blood draws is severe. I’ve told my therapist that walking into a doctor’s office where I can see syringes laid out feels like walking into a torture chamber. If by chance she thought I was exaggerating, she was likely disabused of that after spending two full sessions talking me off the ledge. It was a metaphorical ledge, and I wasn’t in too much danger of jumping, but she recognized how deadly serious I was.
So I kept busy, but that needle hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles for an uncomfortably long time. The good—or, rather, comforting—news is that I have plenty of company.
While we all rightly scoff at anti-vaxxers who fear everything from a vaccine-autism link (which has been debunked so often now as to make any such claim embarrassing) to a secret plot to seed us all with microchips, it’s not so easy to dismiss a simple fear of needles.
Dr. McMurtry writes:
About one in four adults and two out of three children have some fear of needles, and adults may find their fears too shameful to share. This is a substantial public health problem, because a body of research shows that around one in 10 adults are so afraid of needles that they will delay or avoid vaccinations.
While I’m now fully vaxxed and am waiting on the X-Men superpowers I’m still convinced the second Moderna shot will eventually confer, I did stall a bit. I could have likely secured an earlier vaccine appointment based on a BMI that officially put me at borderline overweight (that’s all muscle, dude), but I waited until the official universal eligibility date to make an appointment. And I didn’t grab the first appointment available to me. Because, to me, it basically felt like arranging a day trip to the snake petting zoo. Why would I want to rush into something I was so terrified of?
I powered through—after advocating so strongly for vaccinations, it would have been intolerably hypocritical of me to reject the shot—but the experience was still more difficult than even I want to admit.
For shot No. 1, I went to my local Rite Aid by myself. I paced and sweated outside the designated room until my name was called. I sat down, tried to breathe normally, and literally whimpered as the needle went in. I was told to wait 10 or 15 minutes before leaving, so I wandered the pharmacy for a bit before feeling faint and scrambling for a chair in the waiting area—where I proceeded to pass out. Not from anaphylactic shock (which is a serious concern for anyone receiving the vaccine), but from the realization that I’d just been jabbed with a needle.
It all sounds absurd, I know—and that’s where much of the shame McMurtry writes about originates, because even I know how weird it all sounds—but, unfortunately, it’s all too real.
Vaccine hesitancy is a complex phenomenon with many contributing factors, including needle fear. Fear can be adaptive in a dangerous situation — like reacting to seeing a bear in the woods — or it can be out of proportion to the danger that’s present. Needle fear also exists on a spectrum, with people who are nervous about needles on one end and people with extreme levels of needle fear that meet the diagnostic criteria for what’s called “blood injection injury phobia” on the other. The latter is a mental health diagnosis that’s estimated to occur in 3.2 percent to 4.5 percent of people, which is most likely an underestimate given that many people do not acknowledge these fears to health care professionals and never receive a diagnosis.
I’ve nearly passed out simply at the thought of a blood draw, and thinking too much about vaccinations can make me wobbly as well, so it seems likely that I fall within that 3.2% to 4.5% of Americans who suffer from “blood injection injury phobia.”
Again, I know how irrational my fear is. It’s not about the pain from a needle. Not really. I regularly experience worse pain from stubbing my toe or otherwise bumping into things, and that doesn’t stop me from getting up to pee in the middle of the night. And I’m not afraid of the vaccine or its side effects. I barely gave those a thought.
There’s just something about needles that fills me with dread—even terror.
But that’s what a phobia is: an irrational fear that only makes “sense” to the phobic person.
The night before my second shot, as I fretted about my appointment with the executioner, I posted this on social media:
I get my second Moderna shot tomorrow. I'm so deathly afraid of needles, I kind of wish the vaccinator would just jab me without warning in the waiting room like Dexter sneaking up on one of his victims.
It was nine parts gallows humor with a soupçon of sympathy-fishing tossed into the stew.
I got a lot of supportive responses, but I also heard from (no doubt well-meaning) people who said things like, “just look away” and, “it’s nothing.” One person said it was no worse than brushing your teeth, and another said it was nothing compared to what Jesus felt when he was nailed to the cross.
Uh, let me answer those in order: “I will,” “it isn’t,” “nope,” and, “that was a long time ago; meanwhile, my own Golgotha still awaits.”
And if it sounds offensive to compare my own fate to Jesus’, think how it sounds for you to compare your vaccination experience to mine. I don’t mean to be dismissive of someone who’s only trying to help, but this is the nature of fears and phobias: Other people’s hangups always seem so silly and stupid, whereas your own are inescapably real.
No wonder we feel shame over all our feckless agonizing.
Adults shouldn’t feel ashamed if they are fearful of needles and should know that it’s common. Health care professionals and vaccination site organizers should be conscious of these fears and embrace methods to ease them.
Finally, I feel seen.
In her Times op-ed, McMurtry details several ways both vaccinators and vaccinatees can alleviate some of the fears that go with getting a shot. She mentions arranging vaccination sites to prevent long lines and giving people the option of a private vaccination. (I had a private room, and that definitely helped.) She notes that people receiving vaccines could “consider what might relax or distract them while waiting at the clinic, such as reading a book, listening to music on their phone or playing a video game” and points out that “even purchasing a topical anesthetic can be helpful.”
She also says that things like exposure therapy, where people are allowed to gradually confront their fears (in this case, holding plastic needles or watching vaccination videos to lessen their anxiety), can help ease anxiety when D-Day comes.
My second shot was easier because I was better prepared.
For one thing, I’d already had a shot, and while that experience was definitely fraught, nothing terrible happened, so I was naturally a bit less fearful going in. Secondly, I decided any stiff upper lip I was still trying to maintain wasn’t worth the angst it was causing me. So I used every weapon in my arsenal. I asked my wife to accompany me and sit with me in the Room Where It Happened. I also took two Xanax, which my psychiatrist had prescribed for just such an occasion.
When my number came up, I turned to the vaccinator, told him, “I’ve brought my emotional support human,” and walked through the door. I saw the syringe (it was capped, without the needle showing), took a breath, sat down, held my wife’s hand, buried my head in her shoulder, let the vaccinator know he should just go ahead without warning, whimpered (a little less this time), and suddenly the ordeal was done. I cooled my heels for the requisite waiting period, didn’t pass out this time, and we went home.
And now, come June 4, I’ll be more or less released from this pandemic’s most onerous restrictions. I’ll keep masking for a while because, well, I’m not about to go through all this just to catch COVID-19 anyway. I’ll take as many layers of protection as I can get. But I’m looking forward to having a draft beer and taking in a matinee movie some day in the near future.
All of this is part of why I get so frustrated with—and angry at—vaccine refusers. I always knew I’d get the vaccine as soon as the government approved it—if only because I live in a society, and this is what citizens do. In this case especially, it’s not just about me. Refusing a vaccine could literally become a death sentence for someone else, and I couldn’t bear to have that on my conscience.
At the same time, it’s unknowable how many of the vaccine hesitant are simply too scared to get even one shot, much less two. I’d originally hoped for the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine, but someone told me the needle for that one was longer, and the Moderna shot was the first one available to me, so I grabbed it.
Phobias are not silly or trivial to the people who have them. I understand how irrational it is to worry about a harmless medical device used to administer a potentially lifesaving vaccine. But I assure you, if I could talk myself out of feeling panicked and desperate at the sight of a needle, I would have done so a long time ago.
I can’t, so I seized on the coping mechanisms that were available to me, as inadequate as they may have seemed.
If you, like me, dread needles, I’d advise starting with McMurtry’s Times op-ed and then searching online for any coping tricks you think might help you specifically. But my overarching message is this: It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and there’s nothing wrong with drawing on every last resource you have, no matter how silly it might seem. And you shouldn’t hesitate to make special requests of your vaccinator, such as asking for a place to lie down afterwards, if possible. Or simply letting them know that they need to turn their beside manner on full blast. I’m certain my Trumpier relatives (and MAGA acquaintances, assuming there are any left) would have scoffed at my carrying on and my bringing in another person for emotional support. But that’s what I needed—and it helped.
Needless to say, this vaccine is important. It’s how we end this pandemic, both for ourselves and our fellow Americans. As President Joe Biden has said, getting the vaccine is the patriotic thing to do.
I got through this, and when the time comes that I need a booster, I’ll power through that, too. But among the vaccine-hesitant there are no doubt plenty of people like me. Be kind to them, and if you’re so inclined, show them this story to let them know they’re not alone.
My wife isn’t available to hold their hands while they get their shots—but I will respond to their questions if they ask nicely.
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