Scared of needles? Try these simple tips

Needle being put into woman's arm

Clare Barry

Posted March 10, 2021

If you’re dreading the thought of getting an injection, here are nine ways to help ease the stress.

As Australia’s biggest-ever vaccination program rolls out, it’s safe to say that despite the countless benefits, millions of prospective recipients are not exactly relishing their double appointment with the needle. 

Rachael McGuire is a nurse researcher with the Melbourne Vaccination Education Centre who specialises in immunisation education and vaccine safety – and has personally delivered thousands of vaccines. She identifies two main needle-averse types in the general population – those who “don’t really” like needles (“and that’s fine, I don’t know anyone that loves them”) and those who “really don’t” like needles and avoid them completely. Which is a real problem when it comes to receiving vital medical treatment.

This fits with estimates that up to 10 per cent of the population may be needle-phobic, and 20 per cent simply fear needles. While a professional psychologist may be able to help the former cohort via  desensitisation and cognitive behaviour therapy, the latter can employ a few simple techniques to take the anxiety out of receiving a vaccine or any other needle-based medical procedure. 

Nine tips to lessen the stress of getting a needle

Make sure you’ve eaten first

If you’re feeling anxious, try to eat a decent meal before your vaccination and go easy on the coffees or anything else that might make you jittery. “Make sure you’ve got some food in you so that your blood sugar doesn’t drop and it all just gets too much,” says Rachael.

Speak up if you’re feeling nervous

“If you’re worried or scared for any reason, or you’re concerned about fainting, just say so to the clinician because they can look after you,” advises Rachael. “It makes everything go so much better.” The clinician can get the recipient to lie down, or can use distraction techniques to ease the process. “I’ve given vaccines to big burly men covered in tattoos who say ‘I’m scared of needles’ and speaking up is the best thing to do because if they faint and hit the deck I can’t catch them.”

Try not to look

This is a matter of personal preference. Some people like to see what’s happening and when, while others have watched enough COVID needle shots on the TV news to last a lifetime. If you don’t want to watch, you can ask the provider to let you know when the needle is about to enter the skin so you don’t jump.

Take your mind off it 

If you’re feeling anxious, you can help calm your mind by doing a meditation beforehand on an app like Smiling Mind, or running through some simple breathing exercises while you wait. “Just trying to be in a good headspace helps,” says Rachael.

Needle being put into elderly man's arm

Relax your muscles

When receiving the needle, try not to clench your fist or tighten your muscles as this can make it seem to hurt more.

Distract yourself

The immunisation itself takes just two seconds, and distraction is a reliable way to get your mind off that needle. You could strike up a conversation with the clinician, listen to favourite calming music through headphones, play a (one-handed) game on your phone, conjure up a ‘mind picture’ of your favourite place or person, or focus on a TV or poster in the clinic.

Wiggle your toes

Some providers advise nervous recipients to wiggle their toes as the needle goes in. “By focusing on a different part of the body you can train yourself to think about that instead of what’s happening on your arm,” says Rachael. “It’s another distraction method.”

Dress appropriately 

With winter approaching, Rachael says it’s a good idea to dress  with your immunisation appointment in mind. “It’s really important that the provider can see your entire upper arm, from shoulder to elbow.” Rolling up a business shirt won’t do, she says, and you might not feel comfortable taking it off altogether. “Wear a jumper with a T-shirt underneath so you can take off the jumper and roll the T-shirt right up.”

Give it a nicer nickname

Words can paint a thousand pictures, and if the likes of ‘needle’, ‘shot’ and ‘jab’ are putting you off your vaccine, you could always do like Rachael’s family and simply call it ‘arm medicine’, which turns the focus neatly onto the contents rather than the method of delivery.