When my then nine-year-old daughter Molly was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, she developed aichmophobia (fear of sharp objects) as well as trypanophobia (fear of needles), and with good reason. Each day, she had to endure multiple finger pricks, repeated blood glucose checks and several insulin injections. In the initial months following Molly’s diagnosis, my husband and I were in charge of managing her blood sugar but were eager to help her overcome her fear so she could slowly start to be responsible for her own diabetes care.

One weekend, I was out of town covering a conference for work and my parents volunteered to help my husband with the kids during my absence. When it came time for Molly’s insulin injection, my dad told her he would give her five dollars if she would do the injection herself. Never one to turn down money, Molly took up Grandpa on his offer, overcame her fear, and gave herself the insulin shot. From that day on, she took over all her blood testing and insulin injections.

Maybe offering a monetary bribe wasn’t exactly the right way to persuade Molly to overcome her fear of needles, but small rewards are actually recommended to help kids get over their fears, says Elisabeth Almekinder, RN, BA, CDC, of Black River Health Services, Inc. in Atkinson, North Carolina.

“When a child is afraid to give herself an injection, it’s fine to offer a little reward occasionally,” she says. “But I wouldn’t use food as a reward as it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food [food rewards can teach kids to expect food every time they accomplish something]. Instead, think about non-food rewards—experiences like a trip to the movies or shopping at a favorite store.”

How Common is Trypanophobia?

Whether you’re a child with type 1 diabetes who requires insulin injections or an adult needing a shot for a medical condition, needles spark fear. In fact, trypanophobia, or a fear of needles, is surprisingly prevalent. About 25% of adults are afraid of needles, and around 7% of adults avoid immunizations because of their fear. 1 The phobia is also called aichmophobia, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a morbid fear of sharp or pointed objects (such as scissors or a needle).2

The majority of children have a fear of needles, while estimates for needle fear ranged from 20 to 50% in adolescents and 20 to 30% in young adults. Typically, aichmophobia decreases as people get older, and it is more common in females than males, according to one systematic review and meta-analysis.3

“A fear of needles is actually quite common,” says Michael D. McGee, MD, a psychiatrist, and chief medical officer at The Haven at Pismo, a California addiction treatment center. “It’s been suggested that this fear has a genetic basis and that we all have a fear of sharp objects that pierce our flesh. Getting immunizations as babies and experiencing pain may also be a possible source of fear.”

Some people who fear needles have an associative fear, in which a traumatic event—usually psychological—triggered the fear of needles in the first place. In resistance fears, there is an aversion to being controlled or restrained. And in those who have hyperalgesic fear, there is actually a genetic hypersensitivity to pain. “The pain is so unthinkable that the person would never subject themselves to such pain,” Dr. McGee says.

Some individuals are so terrified of needles that they experience a vasovagal response when they get an injection. “With this, you get a marked drop in blood pressure that can lead to passing out,” Dr. McGee says. “People occasionally pass out during a blood draw.”

How to Overcome Your Fear of Needles

Here, some expert tips to help you steel yourself for the syringe:

  1. Prepare the area with a medication such as an ethyl chloride spray or a topical anesthetic cream like lidocaine. Either is useful for the superficial reduction of pain due to the injection of a needle, Dr. McGee says. Also helpful is a jet injector, which works by injecting medication through high-pressure gas rather than a needle, Dr. McGee says.
  2. Take the cognitive approach. Dr. McGee advises contemplating the worst that can happen and remembering that an injection is only a temporary discomfort. “Remind yourself that a needle is painful for a second but when you process and fully understand what the suffering would be like if you did not get the injection, it can help you be more realistic,” Dr. McGee explains.
  3. Practice deep breathing. “Visualize yourself being in a comfortable place,” Dr. McGee says. “Don’t make your fear an enemy but treat the injection as something that in the end will make you more comfortable.”
  4. Try mindfulness and meditation. “Start with a few minutes of mindfulness and then 14 minutes of meditation,” Almekinder says. “Think of three things that you are grateful for and then imagine your goals, long-term or simple, being accomplished.” She likes the meditation app, Calm.
  5. Use the show and tell approach with children. When nurse Almekinder is explaining the injection process to a newly-diagnosed child with diabetes, she demonstrates how she will do it and carefully explains each move she’s going to make on the child as the child watches her. Next, she demonstrates how to do it by injecting a needle into the orange. Then, she lets the child play with the orange until the child is comfortable injecting the orange herself.
  6. Distract and desensitize yourself. To distract yourself, try imagining sitting on a sun-drenched Caribbean beach or another place you go to relax, while you give yourself an injection. For some people desensitization is effective.  Hold the syringe in one hand until your fear and anxiety start to subside. Go through all the motions of giving yourself an injection, without actually pricking your finger. You can even hold a little piece of ice there to numb the area, Almekinder says. This should make it easier when you are ready to do an actual injection, she explains
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Last Updated: Sep 12, 2019