Overcoming Needle Phobia

Gaining relaxation and confidence to conquer your fear

sexual dysfunctionBy Jen Nash, DClinPsych, Director of www.PositiveDiabetes.com

For many people with diabetes, injections and blood glucose testing are simply a necessary part of life. But for many, both the newly diagnosed and those who have been managing the condition for longer, the injection and blood glucose testing process can be very distressing. But what turns a plain dislike of needles into an actual phobia? Well, a phobia is an extreme or irrational fear or aversion to something. Along with needle phobia, fear of public speaking, fear of the dentist, and fear of heights are some very common phobias encountered among the general population.

A small degree of dislike of needles is perfectly normal – most people would avoid them if they possibly could. But this fear is greatly heightened in people with needle phobia, to the point where they cannot bear the thought of injections. Needle phobia is common in the general population. Some studies suggest the rate of occurrence is at least 10% although it is likely that the actual number is larger, as many sufferers simply avoid all medical treatment.

The symptoms of needle phobia vary greatly from one individual to another. The main feature is anxiety at the thought of injections or blood glucose testing. This may be associated with feeling dizzy and light-headed, a dry mouth, palpitations, sweating, trembling, over-breathing, feeling sick and even fainting, and lead to attempts to avoid them.

Why does it occur?

Although it can be difficult to be entirely sure what causes a phobia of needles, the most common causes are thought to be:

1. An upsetting experience of needles when young, for example, a painful procedure at the hospital or at the dentist

2. A fear that has been ‘modelled' by an adult close to the child, either through actual observation of their fear, or being told a story that implied injections and needles were very painful.

3. There is also evolutionary value to a fear of needles. In the past, an individual who feared being struck with a thorn or a knife was less likely to die in accidents or in encounters with hostile animals or other humans. Before the twentieth century, even an otherwise non-fatal puncture wound had a reasonable chance of causing a fatal infection. So a trait that had positive survival value in our evolutionary history now has the opposite effect, as it means people struggle to engage in using the needle that will save their life.

Needle phobia and diabetes

Fear of self-injecting or of self-testing are associated not just with poorer adherence to the diabetes treatment regimen, but with more diabetes-related distress overall and poorer general well-being.

How to overcome needle phobia

Gaining skills of relaxation and confidence is the key to making injections less painful and less anxiety-provoking. You will develop confidence over time and with practice, using a combination of relaxation and developing your own personal ‘fear hierarchy'. A fear hierarchy is a series of steps that you could take to overcome your fear, from the least feared to the most feared. A special note if your fear is such that you feel faint, or do faint: fainting is associated with a sudden drop in blood pressure, which can be prevented by tensing up your muscles instead of attempting to relax, so use the ‘applied tension' technique, described in the box below.

Applied tension to prevent fainting

Tighten the muscle groups in your arms, legs and torso all at once and hold this position for about 5 seconds. Let go of the tension momentarily and then tense up again. Practise this while sitting down at home somewhere quiet twice a day, starting with a few minutes and building up to 10 minutes. Once you are comfortable doing this sitting down, progress to a standing position. Once this is familiar, start to tackle your fear hierarchy using applied tension as you work through the steps.

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Last Modified Date: October 15, 2014

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