Ahead of COVID jabs: Can hypnosis help kids overcome fear of needles?

As many as 50% of children suffer from trypanophobia, a fear of needles. An expert explains how to treat the problem.

The word "COVID-19" is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration taken November 9, 2020.  (photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)
The word "COVID-19" is reflected in a drop on a syringe needle in this illustration taken November 9, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

As Israel gets ready to approve coronavirus vaccination for the 5-11 age group, the underlying question remains whether, once shots are available, if parents will take their children to get vaccinated.

While vaccine hesitancy can be associated with many reasons, one might have not taken into consideration enough: trypanophobia – fear of needles.

According to a survey conducted on some 15,000 adults in the UK by Oxford University, trypanophobia accounted for about 10% of the cases of vaccine hesitancy, and offering treatment for the problem could give an important boost to the inoculation drive in the country.

Different studies suggest that around 20% of the adult population suffer from the condition, and as many as 50% of children and adolescents, according to psychiatrist Dr. Alex Aviv.

Aviv, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, is the director of the Hypnosis Advisory Committee to the Health Ministry. Hypnosis offers an important opportunity to treat trypanophobia, as well as other anxiety disorders, including those caused by the pandemic itself.

“Hypnosis can be described as an altered state of consciousness or awareness during which people are more open to receive suggestions and therefore more open to listen to the advice of their physician or therapist,” he said.

 Medical staff receive their third COVID-19 vaccine shot at Meir Medical Center in Kefar Sava, August 13, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) Medical staff receive their third COVID-19 vaccine shot at Meir Medical Center in Kefar Sava, August 13, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Israel has one of the most comprehensive laws on the subject in the world, allowing the technique to be used only for medical purposes by qualified professionals, and never as a form of entertainment.

“The only reason to use hypnosis is for the sake of people’s health, to help reduce pain, to cure physical or a mental problem,” Aviv said. “It should never be employed or abused for a performance in front of a crowd.”

In addition, the law prohibits anyone who does not hold a valid hypnotizing license to carry out the practice. Only physicians, psychologists and dentists can obtain one, and only after undergoing special training and passing a test.

“We usually don’t address trypanophobia because we take it for granted the children fear needles,” Aviv noted. “However, as we prepare to vaccinate them against COVID, we must be aware of the issue.”

Israel is expected to approve COVID inoculation for the 5-11 cohort on Wednesday.

“The reason why fear of needles is so common is connected to evolution,” Aviv said. “From early childhood, like all primates or other mammals, a child learns that pain equals danger. Being punctured is very common among all mammals, and they try to avoid it because it can lead to very serious injuries and even death.”

The expert noted that trypanophobia is not just a minor fear or preference but rather a full anxiety issue.

“The fear of needles can lead to full anxiety attacks when someone gets vaccinated, causing the heartbeat to accelerate, high blood pressure, feeling dizzy or nauseous, faint, sweating, shaking, difficulty in breathing and insomnia,” he said.

“For this reason, children might really want to avoid getting inoculated and parents might allow it, either because they empathize with them or because they suffer from trypanophobia themselves,” he added. “Research has shown that someone can experience the phenomenon even when they hold a child getting a shot.”

Hypnosis, however, can help overcome the condition.

“We first explore where the fear comes from, and especially if the child is not so young, we can explain to them the evolutionary reason behind it, adding that they now have the mental ability to understand that vaccinations are good,” Aviv remarked.

“In addition, our most effective tool is what we call exposure therapy,” he added. “We show the child some syringes without needles. We give the child the syringe to hold them and through hypnosis. We work to reduce the symptoms of trypanophobia that they start to experience. Eventually, the child can hold the syringe with the needle and play with the needle.”

Through this treatment, patients gradually become less fearful and stop experiencing anxiety symptoms.

“The problem can be overcome in very few sessions, between three and six,” Aviv said.

Trypanophobia is not the only challenge related to COVID that hypnosis can help with.

COVID-19 has caused a dramatic change in the quality of life of people and especially of children and adolescents,” Aviv noted. “We sometimes forget that for them being with their peer group is really important for emotional, psychological, physical and physiological growth. Disconnecting them from their environment can cause many problems, including anxiety, depression, concentration problems, bed-wetting and insomnia.

“In the past two years, I have also been treating many children with viral warts on their hands or scurvy in their legs,” Aviv said. “While these problems are viral, stress can increase them and cause them to spread. Hypnosis can be a very good way to treat these issues.”