Understanding the fear: Blood phobias

Story by: Claire Floody | Illustration by: Beenish Shahab

Oh, no. Not again. That familiar feeling washes over me. My heart starts racing, I’m hit with dizziness like a brick to the face and I’m suddenly soaked in sweat — my body is in full on freak-out-mode. “You’re very pale,” the lab technician says, fanning me with her medical folder. “All the colour has drained from your face.”

I’ve had my blood taken before, yet I always have the same debilitating reaction. Why does a routine medical procedure cause me so much anxiety?
Phobias plague more of us than you’d think, affecting one out of every 10 Canadians, according to the Canadian Psychological Association. A fear of blood, injury or injection is one of the four main types of phobias.

Fareed Shah, a phlebotomist who takes blood for a living, estimates that in the seven years he’s been doing this, he’s drawn blood from more than 5,000 people. I ask him how often he comes across someone with a fear of blood or needles.

“Every day,” he says. “I think as people we’re conditioned from a
young age to fear things like that.”

From fainting, to freak outs, to patients frozen in fear, Shah has seen it all when it comes to blood. He helps me understand why physical reactions, such as dizziness or fainting, happen and what they really mean.

“When people are stressed out when they come in, their blood pressures rises,” he explains.

“So as soon as you put the needle in the skin, there’s a sudden drop in the blood pressure and the brain gets deprived of oxygen and that’s what makes you pass out.”

Phlebotomist Fareed Shah pictured with his 2014 Yamaha Bolt.

He recommends doing whatever you need to in order to be comfortable and get through the procedure. Don’t be embarrassed to ask to lie down, he says, and stay hydrated. Some blood tests require patients to fast, but Shah says water usually isn’t included in that, so he recommends people to hydrate as much as possible. And on a technical front, it helps him out too, “it makes my job easier,” he says — hydration creates better blood flow causing the veins to stand out.

A blood or needle phobia can be particularly dangerous because it can cause a person to avoid important medical tests or procedures, says Dr. Nicole Elliott, Ph.D., who is authorized to work as a clinical psychologist in supervised practice. Elliott works with CBT Associates, a practice with six locations across the Greater Toronto Area. CBT Associates helps people overcome negative feelings or behaviours that impact their everyday lives.

Elliott says CBT, which stands for Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, can be an effective treatment for phobias because it helps people understand what triggers them. She explains that a lot of people’s phobias stem from a bad experience, such as a high level of anxiety during an injection or fainting after blood is drawn. That response then becomes learned and people tend to catastrophize what will happen, causing them to avoid it altogether.

“Immediately when you avoid, you feel a little bit better,” Elliott says.

“However, it keeps maintaining that anxiety or that belief that it’s somehow harmful.”

“What we typically do with CBT is put you in that situation where you can allow yourself to experience it and then unlearn that response,” she says. “Then you go into the experience and see that it’s actually not something you have to be afraid of.”

After someone is more comfortable with those responses, the therapy will gradually work towards exposing them to what they’ve been avoiding. It starts off small, say with patients looking at pictures of needles and then eventually could progress to blood being taken in a controlled and safe environment, Elliott says. She explains that the process will be decided upon by both therapist and patient.

Avoidance has definitely been a tactic of mine when dealing with blood, but I don’t know if I can pin the fear on one bad experience. It may stem from my love of horror movies (I peek through my fingers for the gory bits) or a childhood fascination/fear with sharks. Either or, both exposed me to a lot of blood at a young age. And now my adult self is trying to navigate the murky water that is my anxiety.

The first time I remember getting my blood taken was in February 2013. I was so proud of myself that I snapped a photo to commemorate the moment (and to send to my disbelieving parents).

Although blood and needle phobias are common, I know there are people who enjoy having their blood taken or are intrigued by needles — people like Jon (he requested to be identified by his first name only).

Jon is a 29-year-old plumber who’s always had a fascination with needles, even dating back to when he was a kid.

“As long as I can remember, getting vaccines as a child was something to look forward to. To test the limits and just kind of see what hurts and why,” he says.

He recalls piercing and re-piercing different parts of his body when he was younger, just for the thrill of it or “because he could.” He also enjoys getting tattoos, he says at a certain point he becomes accustomed to the pain and it’s almost soothing. To this day, both his arms, legs and chest are covered. He reckons that out of all the tattoos on his body, there’s about five that he’s done to himself.

“If I could afford it, I’d be covered,” he says.

Even getting his blood taken — something that is so horrid to me — is enjoyable for Jon.

“I like to watch my blood being taken. Feeling my body with every pulse of my heart,” he says. “The experience itself, it’s so out of the ordinary. I can’t help but be fascinated by it.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever be like Jon — I’ve never once been able to look while getting my blood taken. But I now have a better understanding of my phobia and maybe some tips on how not to faint next time. I also learned just how common blood phobias really are.

“I’ll never forget the first guy that ever passed out on me,” Shah says. “It was a big guy, he was like six-foot-seven, covered in tattoos and built like a football player. As soon as I put that needle in, his head just went down,” he says.

“It really can happen to anyone.”

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