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I need to get blood taken. How do I get over my needle-phobia?

The question: I'm a 27-year-old woman and I need to get blood taken. The problem is, I've never had a needle in years. I get physical panic attacks and I can't go through with it. How do I get over my needle-phobia, especially if my health may depend on a shot or test in the future?

The answer: The look of alarm that crosses a patient's face is not an uncommon occurrence when I hand them a requisition for bloodwork, or discuss the need for a vaccination or medication given by injection. When we discuss their fear, it's often related to a previous negative experience that left them feeling embarrassed or scared, because they had fainted or had a panic attack at the sight of needles and blood.

So you're not alone in having a fear of needles. It's important that you are looking for a way to get through this – needle-phobia is high on the list of reasons why people avoid getting medical care, even when they are unwell.

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There are a few steps you can take to make the process of facing needles a little easier:

Ask your doctor what the blood tests are for. Not only is it important to know why a test is being ordered, but knowing the reason behind a test, whether it is to help screen or diagnose a medical condition, may motivate you to face your fears and complete the tests.

Find someone you trust to take your blood or give you an injection. Ask friends or family to tell you where they get bloodwork done, and how comfortable they felt while there. When you find a lab, be honest with the technician about your fears. If it's the needle that scares you, ask them to use a "butterfly needle," which is smaller and less painful. If it's seeing blood that worries you, ask if it's possible to lie down to get your blood test done. Having a friend or family member with you for support during the blood test or for the injection may also be helpful.

If these techniques don't work, there are some methods of counselling that may help. Speak to your doctor for recommendations of therapists who specialize in helping individuals overcome phobias. With the help of a trained professional, needle phobia, as with other phobias, can be worked through using different techniques, such as exposing oneself gradually to the trigger. Other options include relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy that focus on addressing the fearful thoughts associated with your phobia. By addressing these concerns now, you'll gradually be able to face needles – and be certain that all your health needs are being cared for.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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