COVID vaccines and treating needle phobia


J. Gathany (CC-BY)

For those with trypanophobia, an extreme fear of needles, COVID-19 vaccinations pose a significant challenge.

Do you remember the last time you were truly struck by fear? When your heart raced, your breath quickened, and you felt sick to your stomach? This is the sense of dread felt by Jane Karopoulus when confronted with a needle.

Karopoulus represents the 1 in 10 people who experience trypanophobia, an extreme fear of needles. She says her phobia was first noticed when she was in kindergarten and had to get a blood test.

“I just remember it [being] the most terrifying thing of my life. I was kicking and screaming, and my dad had to hold me down so they could draw blood from my arm,” she says.

Because she is triggered by vaccines being sprung on her, Karopoulus always books her immunisation appointments well in advance. She also utilises other coping methods to help manage her anxiety when being pricked, which she learnt while studying psychology.

“I always bring a support person with me so that I’ve got someone to grab onto and hold,” she says.

“It has also been recommended for me to bring my headphones and put music in so that I’m just listening to music and not paying attention to what’s going on.”

Despite many sufferers of this phobia feeling that they will never fully shrug their dread, extensive research has been completed on the nature of phobias and various treatments for them.

This is now more important than ever as the nationwide COVID-19 vaccine program sits at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Tracy Murphy is a Graduate Nurse Course coordinator at Melbourne University. She says that additional measures need to be put in place to ensure people with trypanophobia feel comfortable and inclined to book mandatory vaccine appointments.

“People with true phobias probably do not make appointments in community settings and are hence unknown and an area of unmet need,” she says.

Trypanophobia should not be confused with a simple fear of needles. According to Dr Jennifer Loh, a researcher in positive psychology and capacity building at the University of Canberra, phobias differ from fears as phobias are normally considered more irrational.

“Fear is a natural emotional response we get when we encounter real or imminent danger. On the other hand, a phobia is excessive anxiety about a specific object or event that is disproportionate to the actual danger they present,” she says.

For someone to be medically diagnosed with a phobia, Dr Loh explains, they first need to meet the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This includes signs such as persistent fear that is unreasonable and excessive, avoidance of stimuli and the phobic response interfering with one’s routine.

Due to her work in aged care, Karopoulus recently received the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine.

“I tried not to think about the fact that I was getting a needle. I was focusing more on ‘I’m going to get the vaccine [and] I’m going to be fully vaccinated after this’,” she says.

With the emergence of the COVID-19 vaccine in the fight against the global pandemic, Dr Loh believes that despite people’s fear or phobia of needles, everyone must understand the benefits of being vaccinated and how the end justifies the means.

“We must focus on the benefit of the vaccination as it is safe and effective and provides an important mean[s] to protect ourselves, our families, friends and our community against COVID-19 and its variants,” she says.

Dr Loh says there are many treatment options available to help suffers manage or even cure their needle phobia.

“Some coping mechanisms include hypnotherapy, self-help and even medication, but I am a firm believer that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tend[s] to be the most effective,” she says.

CBT is one of the most common methods of phobia treatment. It involves slowly exposing a fearful person to their stimulus until they become more comfortable in the presence of it. Psychologist Shawn Goldberg often performs CBT using virtual reality (VR) at his Melbourne clinic, Mind Up.

According to Goldberg, psychologists can use VR to make their patients feel as if they are experiencing a real-life vaccine appointment. From being in the waiting area to the nurse bringing them into the examination room for their immunisation, the entire experience can be replicated all in the first-person view.

“The beauty of VR is that we can pause it, or we can replay it, and we can do it in a way that they [our patients] start to feel like they’ve got a little bit more control over that experience,” he says.

Since the Victorian COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Goldberg says more people have been visiting his clinic to have their needle phobias treated. However, the inescapable nature of the vaccines continues to hold people back. To combat this, Goldberg asks his patients to imagine what their life would be like without their fear of needles.

“So, what’s it preventing in your life? Is [it] that you would feel more confident to go out in public because you’ve been vaccinated? How will it impact you from a positive perspective if somehow this phobia disappeared? Things like that would be helpful for people to consider,” he says.

Nurse Tracy Murphy also acknowledges how the media might be deterring those with a phobia from getting vaccinated because of how the jabs are presented on TV.

“So many people have told me how sick they are [of] seeing vaccines being given,” she says.

“They seem to think the needle looks a lot bigger on TV and that some of the jabbing techniques look painful.”