You might be surprised to learn that medical professionals are some of the most needle-phobic people around. You should hear the whining in the line for the flu shots every year: “Which nurse looks like she hurts you the least?” “Is it a big needle?” “I hope I don’t faint!” Not to mention the ones who just avoid their shots. “But don’t you have to stick needles in people all the time?” you may be wondering. Well, yes. Into other people. Most (though not all) needle phobics don’t have too much trouble with a stranger’s blood or pain; it’s our own we’re concerned with. I have an (untested) theory that needle phobics may in fact be drawn to medical careers; there’s an aspect of phobia that involves deep interest in the object of fear. It’s invested with such power in your mind that it becomes fascinating.
There are different broad types of needle phobia (that site I just linked to is pretty good, by the way); I had a combination of the two most common, vasovagal and associative. The vasovagal type involves the symptoms typically associated with phobias: nausea, rapid heart rate, sweating, and a drop in blood pressure, resulting in lightheadedness and even fainting. A tendency toward becoming vasovagal seems to be just the way some of us are made, and usually we have more than one phobia to contend with. (A couple other phobias of mine are spiders and phones. I did have a fear of public speaking, but overcame this in quite a different fashion — maybe I'll tell that story too one day. Snakes, heights, and mice bother me not at all, so you never can tell.)
“Associative” needle phobia usually develops from an unpleasant experience with needles in childhood (whether your own trauma or something you witnessed). Mine probably started when I had two separate episodes of scarlet fever that necessitated very large injections of penicillin into my butt. They held me down while I screamed and fought. (Not the best way to go about it, one would think; I hope this isn’t a typical pediatric procedure anymore.)
From then on, anytime I knew in advance that I was going to have to get a needle of any kind, I would live in anxiety for days. Those who suffer from needle phobia often avoid necessary medical testing and treatment (some avoid pregnancy solely for this reason). I usually made it through, but not always, and I definitely delayed my infertility workup due to this. I vividly remember the days before my first bloodwork, wondering how I was ever going to be able to get through ART. That blood draw went ok, but the relief I felt after it was “It’s over with! Never again!” rather than “That wasn’t so bad!”
The first time I had to have an injection at home, I premedicated with an anxiolytic (the good stuff), but I was still so tense that I put my husband through a good half hour of “OK! — No, wait! Wait! — OK! No no no!” It ended with me in tears, though the injection was eventually administered.
Then I learned the first trick that helped me. It’s a simple technique for overcoming vasovagal reactions. Most people make the mistake of trying to relax as much as possible before and during the experience, but it turns out this makes things worse, because it allows your blood pressure to plummet, and makes your symptoms more severe. Whereas if you cross your legs hard and clench your fist on the side opposite the injection or blood draw, you help maintain your blood pressure, and then you don’t feel woozy, and the cycle can be (temporarily) halted. (Take care not to make it look like you are about to punch the phlebotomist; they can be touchy about this. I actually pinch my thumb really hard between my other fingers, and scrunch up my toes.)
The next trick I learned was visualization. Most people have categories of pain: some pain is ok, some is scary, and some is actually good. Everyone’s different, of course, but some examples of good pain might be: tweezing a stray hair; lancing a boil; popping a pimple; getting a tattoo; bikini waxing; digging out a splinter; having a newborn latch on to tender nipples … you get the idea: sudden pain that serves a worthy purpose. If you can pretend that the needle stick is actually one of the “good” pains, it seems to hurt much less.
The technique I learned that was most helpful for the “associative” part of the phobia was re-associating the procedure with something good instead of bad. What helped me the most for this was focusing on the goal: a baby. At the last infertility clinic I went to, they had pictures of patients’ babies up on the wall facing you as you had your blood drawn. Some people were offended by this, but if I could find a really cute one and focus on it, it went much better: it’s for a baby! Ouch! Not so bad!
A technique that helped with both aspects of my phobia was distraction. When my husband had to give me deep intramuscular injections of progesterone in oil—with the BIG needles—he developed what I called his “patter”: he would think of an interesting story to tell me, and right when it was getting to the good part, WHAM! he’d stick me. Sometimes he’d forget to talk (an amazing lapse, if you know my husband), and I’d have to yell “Patter! Patter!” as I lay on the bed with my pants down.
And finally, a great treatment for most phobias is habituation. This can be hard to achieve with needle phobias—playing with needles is not generally practical or savory. But infertility treatment was just what the doctor ordered, ha ha. Intramuscular injections daily—hell, twice daily, why not? Blood draws, let’s see—let’s do them every other day, just in case! It’s not clear why habituation works, but after a few days of this, most phobic people just chill out. (You will rarely see a really ill needle phobic in the hospital. Rather, you will see them, but you won’t realize they were ever phobic.)
The one thing I wondered was whether I would be back at square one once infertility treatment was done with, because habituation often fades if the stimulus isn’t continued. But not too long ago I came down with strep throat, and realized that rather than take pills for a week, I could just get a shot in the butt. I looked at the syringe beforehand, and it was the biggest, longest, fattest freaking needle I had ever seen. In addition, the quantity of liquid was prodigious, and was a disturbing milky white color. I gazed at it for a moment, then said, “Eh, stick me!” and dropped trou. It was only later, as I was limping around the office, that I realized that this was the very thing that had triggered the whole problem in the first place. And I finally felt cured.