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Flu season is upon us, and according to Health Canada, the best way to avoid the whole clammy, sneezy, barfy experience is still annual vaccination. Simple enough, except that for the needle-nervous among us, getting a shot often seems scarier than the illness itself. To combat those injection jitters, we offer some tips on how to make the flu shot (or any needle, for that matter) as painless as possible.

Take a deep breath

The best way to calm those pre-shot jitters is also the most obvious – remain calm. This may sound easier said than done, but there are certain physical actions a person can take to keep the butterflies at bay. Dr. Michael Finkelstein, Associate Medical Officer Of Health for Toronto Public Health, recommends deep breathing, which is calming and also provides a focus other than the sharp object aimed at your arm. Staying somewhat relaxed means your muscles will be less tense, which results in a less painful shot (and ideally less anxiety the next time around).

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Drive yourself to distraction

The brain is a fickle beast – to keep yours from fixating on needle fear, bring something else to distract it. "Some music to listen to is a great idea," Dr. Finkelstein says. An audio book might be an even better option (try to cue it to the big cliffhanger reveal). For young kids, bubbles are a great way to keep the brain occupied, and for the very young a breast might be your best option. "Feeding an infant during the injection is soothing and may minimize post-shot tears," Dr. Finkelstein says.

Control the environment

During flu season, vaccination stations are set up in locations ranging from your workplace to your local shopping mall, which is a great way to ensure everyone has access to the flu shot, but is not ideal for the needle-adverse. "If you are worried about getting a shot, the best thing you can do is control the environment in advance," Dr. Finkelstein says. Most GPs and family physicians will be able to administer the flu shot – just call to set up an appointment, so that you can get your shot in a calm and familiar environment, ideally by a person you already know and trust (if you don't, it may be time to start looking for a new doc). Another advantage to pre-booking an appointment: no long lineup, meaning less stress and less time to let your imagination conjure up the very worst of worse case scenarios.

Stop the cycle of fear

It may not help with your own needle issues, but parents should be aware that adult phobias are often based on bad experiences in childhood. "We are trying very hard to make needles a not-so-bad experience for kids as a way to cut the problem off at the pass," Dr. Finkelstein explains. Prior to shot time, mom or dad may want to stop in at a drug store to pick up a numbing gel or patch. Administering these products about an hour before needle time will cut down on the pain and thus, the future fear of needles. As for post-prick strategies, don't rely on the doctor's lollipop. Instead plan your own treat or special outing that you can anticipate in advance. (This works for grown-ups too: a shot might not seem as scary if you're getting it en route to a massage appointment – just be sure the masseuse knows to avoid the sensitive arm).

Know your options

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If none of these tips are making you feel any less anxious about V-Day, consider that a shot is no longer the only way to get the flu vaccine. "Those willing to pay can also opt for the nasal mist version," Dr. Finkelstein says. The product, which your doctor can write a prescription for, can be purchased at many pharmacies for approximately $30. True, this hardly counts as conquering your needle fear, but who said every phobia needed to be attacked head-on anyway?

And don't do this: Mistake common needle anxiety for hard-core trypanophobia. If you're losing sleep over a little shot, you should probably consult a professional.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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