You Can Cure Your Blood and Needle Phobias

Photo by Steve Nagata - - For illustration only

Reader’s Question

My blood phobia started around age 7, when I stapled my finger by accident. Witnessing blood heavily gushing from my finger made me very sick and dizzy, so my mother took me to my family doctor. He told me that I had developed a phobia, so every time I see blood, I must lie down so I don’t faint. Today, as a 17-year-old girl, I still have this phobia, even though I try to control my nervousness around blood. I even feel nervous telling you about it right now!

My needle phobia began 2 years ago, when I witnessed my sister faint after having an immunization. Ever since, I’m not able to take a needle anymore because something in my head keeps telling me that I will faint if I try. I have an overdue immunization that I should have taken last year, but I keep avoiding it. Hospitals, doctors, and anything medical all make me nervous, even driving past a hospital!

These two phobias are disturbing me a lot, and I really want them to stop.

Psychologist’s Reply

What you have described are the classic origins of a phobia: either we have a bad experience ourselves or witness someone else having a bad experience, and then associate that with whatever seemed to cause the negative reaction at the time. Of course not everyone develops phobias, so it is probably those of us who are most prone to anxiety generally who are most vulnerable.

Once we’ve formed the association between particular events and terrible outcomes, we feel anxiety just thinking about those situations, or being faced with anything associated with them. So, we naturally try to avoid those things that spark the anxiety. The result is that phobias don’t go away or get better on their own. In fact, the more we avoid those anxiety-producing items and situations, the more likely we are to turn to the same ‘solution’ each time we’re suddenly confronted with those triggers.

The treatment is simple yet highly effective: break the association between the phobic item or situation and the experience of anxiety. Just as this association was learned through experience, it has to be unlearned the same way. One thorough experience in which you are able to remain relaxed and calm while seeing blood and receiving an injection will break the cyle, and then it’s simply a matter of reinforcing the newly learned association over time.

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This desensitization process sounds simple (and it is), but the prospect of confronting blood and needles probably sounds overwhelming and impossible at this point. The key is to unfold the process in whatever small steps you can complete successfully. Often this means starting with imagining the phobic item or situation, and practicing relaxation at the same time. So, repeated sessions of getting relaxed, then closing your eyes and picturing scenarios that cause some anxiety, while simultaneously calming yourself down, is a great place to start.

With some practice, you will get to the point that you can picture various scenes without much anxiety, if any. The next step is to practice relaxation in the presence of the actual items, but in a setting that isn’t liable to spike your anxiety too much. So, for example, holding a medical syringe but knowing you’re not going to be receiving any injection with it, might be an appropriate step, From there you could work your way up to watching other people receive injections (in videos or in real life). Simply, you don’t move on to the next step until you’ve mastered remaining calm and relaxed at the current step.

The desensitization process culminates in being able to receive injections or have your blood drawn. You might feel a bit of anxiety (no one likes to be poked), but nothing nearly as intense or disruptive as you do now. It may sound impossible at this point to imagine getting an injection with only minor anxiety, but trust that, if approached gradually, the process works. Also, it’s something you can practice on your own, and the speed and thoroughness of the results correspond to how frequently and thoroughly you practice the steps. Treating phobias is one of those relatively rare situations in life where the cure really is in your hands.

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