by Stephanie Grossman, M.A.
Ever since I was little, I have been afraid of needles. I have distinct memories of running around the doctor’s office, crying and screaming, trying to avoid a prick on my finger. My fear of this specific finger-pricking device later generalized to similar-looking objects, like staplers, and I never liked to be near them. Despite my attempts to delay doctors’ appointments, the pricks kept coming, and they were unavoidable. Almost every time I would get a shot or get blood drawn, I would experience what felt to me like terror. I had physiological symptoms of anxiety—sweaty palms, trembling, and heart racing, all exacerbated by my low blood sugar as a result of fasting for these tests. In these moments I experienced two irrational beliefs: “I can’t stand needles,” and “needles are awful.” As a teenager, though I no longer made the doctor chase me down, I still required my mom to sit with me in the room and squeeze my hand as I stared at her intently to ensure I wouldn’t see the needle pierce my skin. Til this day, she and I still laugh about the time she started having a conversation with me in the doctor’s office after I received a shot, and I began screaming at her, “Don’t talk to me until the shot is over!! This really hurts!!” It turns out, the needle had been out of my skin for a good 15 seconds already. My fear of the pain and my expectation of the inability to tolerate this pain actually seemed to cause a sense of pain. My fear was worse than the needle.
Despite my love for candy corn and affinity for dressing up on Halloween like food items (e.g., garlic knot, snow cone), I still experience a sense of anxiety each October. It’s flu shot season, and given my history of asthma, I know I’ll need one. Two weeks ago I wrote “get flu shot” in my Google Calendar. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t actually get it, but instead kept dragging this reminder to later in the week, and to the next week, and the next. This morning, though, I had to stop by my school’s health center for a referral, and was offered a flu shot. I knew I needed to get this over with. I sat in the doctor’s office for what seemed like 10 minutes (it actually might have been). The doctor was honestly taking a really long time preparing the flu shot. This period of waiting triggered thoughts like “Now I just have to sit here even longer in anxiety and I can’t stand this!” and “What is taking him so long, does he not know how to administer a flu shot? What if he messes up and something terrible happens to me?!” But I then consciously told myself, “I can stand it.” I really can, I thought. I know that this anticipatory anxiety is always worse than the shot itself, and I am always surprised at how quick and almost painless it actually is. I know I can stand this, and in a matter of minutes, it will all be over. The doctor came back, and it was quick, and it was fine. And here I am, alive (and hopefully flu-free) to tell the tale.