What needle phobia?

Landmark moment alert: I took blood for the first time!

It’s been 15 years since that day I got the TB jab, fainted in the school corridor and inherited my trypanophobia. I even gave myself a black eye once, keeling over face first into a doctor’s carpet. And then there was the time I fainted in the dentist’s chair and woke up disappointed that he hadn’t done the filling while I was unconscious.

It’s a horrible feeling to know that you’ll probably faint or throw up every time you’re faced with a needle. You feel ill and embarrassed and it’s a pain. Coming to medical school I was afraid that I’d make a fool of myself by fainting on a ward or in a clinic. I was more afraid of that than of all the books and exams and late nights. But I never thought of it as a good enough reason not to go to medical school; it seemed so stupid. It didn’t seem worth it. And so I came and crossed my fingers, and I did the CBT and trusted to my favourite strategy of ‘Yeah, let’s worry about that tomorrow’.

Over the last few months I’ve heard many people say they’d love to be a doctor, nurse, midwife or whatever but that they’re too afraid of needles. But I’ve also met a surprisingly large number of medical students who say they don’t like them either. In fact, according to an occupational health nurse here (the last lucky soul to stick a needle in me), med students kick up the biggest fuss of all. We’re wusses, although maybe it’ll make us more understanding when we do it to other people.

But things are a-changing. A year ago I didn’t realise how much help there was out there for needle phobia, and it really does seem to work (though I couldn’t tell you how). Having gone through the CBT process I seem to feel more in control of my body’s responses. I know I don’t have to faint so I don’t, and haven’t done for months. The slightly embarrassing applied tension technique gives me something to do in that nasty anticipation stage; I don’t whether it works by raising my blood pressure or just causes a distraction, but it helps. To the point where, last week at GP, I sat for a hour watching my friends learn to take blood from each other, and then did it myself with absolutely no bother at all. Gloves, tourniquet, finger on the bulging vein, needle, blood, the lot. The first time I ever intentionally broke a person’s skin, which is pretty mind blowing in itself. And I wasn’t even afraid of fainting – I was looking forward to it.

I’m not saying I’m not still worried about going into hospital and fainting – there are needles and there are needles. And then there’s surgery! And I still hate getting blood taken and I’m not about to start seeking it out. But perhaps it’s not as bad as all that, and maybe these things can be overcome with a little willpower. Perhaps we shouldn’t let fears hold us back.

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You’re feeling a bit dizzy, aren’t you?

So I have this problem with needles. They make me faint. I remember getting vaccinations one day back in secondary school; everyone was competing to tell stories about how big the needle was and how much it hurt, and I keeled over in the corridor afterwards. Some sensitive 13 year-old boy in my class leaned over me and yelled “Is she dead?”. I’d say it probably started there.

It’s a pretty common thing; they say at least one in ten people suffer from some form of needle phobia, or trypanophobia. (If you’re interested in Greek, the prefix ‘trypan-‘ is also used to describe parasites that bore into the skin). Trypanophobia refers to fear of hypodermic needles and injections, not to be confused with aichmophobia (fear of sharp pointy things) or iatrophobia (fear of doctors).

Who cares, you might think, and I pretty much agree, having coped so far through the cunning threefold strategy of (a) never giving blood and trying not to feel too guilty about it, (b) asking to lie down every time I get an injection and (c) not getting ill or pregnant. However, there’s only so much needle avoidance a future doctor can get away with without looking completely stupid. And I won’t be the only medic to have this problem. Luckily I have the loveliest GP in the world who referred me to a cognitive behavioural therapist, and this is has been the source of a fair amount of surreal experience and hilarity over the last couple of months.

Interestingly, needle phobia is one of the few phobias that can actually kill you – the sudden blood pressure drop that tends to happen after the event and cause fainting can be so severe that you die. So I may become a doctor or die trying. Some evolutionary psychologists say that needle phobia is a survival mechanism; faced with a severe injury, that sudden drop in blood pressure means that less blood is likely to be lost. Thanks body, that’s just great.   

So the general idea is that we, my lucky therapist and I, make a list of unpleasant needle-related experiences, rate them on a scale of 0 (fine and dandy) to 100 (utter hell) and then go and do them, with repeated exposure helping to break the psychological ‘overreaction’. Wonderful. Oh and I practice a highly dignified technique known as ‘applied tension‘, which basically involves tensing all my muscles til I go red in the face, which is supposed to raise the blood pressure and thus ward off fainting.

So far I’ve gazed at cartoon needle pictures, stuck a big photo of a needle up on my desk at work, trawled YouTube for alarming videos, watched people giving blood and sat at home playing with a pile of needles and my own mini sharps box. All that stuff was ok really, probably because I’m adept at disconnecting from reality.

Yesterday I went and got some blood tests. Two, voluntarily, which is a minor miracle for me. I sat upright in a chair while the lovely healthcare assistant talked me through it. I tensed my arms and legs frantically, feeling like an idiot, while she put the needle together. I looked at my bulging vein. I looked away. I looked back at the needle in my arm, wiggling around a bit as she took the blood bottle off. She took it out. I tensed. I felt ok! I sat there. I felt a bit queasy. I tensed. I had some water. She did it again. I looked at the needle in my arm. She took it out. I felt horrendous, properly awful. I staggered over to the bed, panting and sweating and shaking and probably turning a fetching greeny white. I guess there’s still some way to go. But I didn’t die, and I had some more water and we chatted and then I went home and baked a cake. Til next time.