I’ve never been a massive fan of blood tests, and my opinion of them hasn’t exactly improved with much closer acquaintance. And trust me, diagnosing a TSH-secreting pituitary adenoma involves a very close acquaintance with the phlebotomists (a.k.a. vampires, a.k.a. people who draw blood for testing) of your local hospital. People are weird, so there’s probably at least a couple of oddballs out there who positively enjoy having their blood drawn, but I am not one of them. In fact, needle phobia is really common – affecting perhaps one in ten people. So how do you manage blood test anxiety if you have a condition that requires lots of blood tests?
How To Manage Blood Test Anxiety
Try to understand your anxiety and symptoms
It may be helpful to consider if there is any particular source of your blood test anxiety or needle phobia – for instance, an upsetting experience as a child, or a fear of fainting, feeling sick, or the pain of the needle. Or it could be associated with the sight of blood, which many people can find to be a trigger for anxiety, a more general fear of medical procedures or hospitals – or even having a parent or caregiver as a child who exhibited anxiety about any of these things. Understanding the triggers for your anxiety doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but it can help you work out what parts of the blood test situation are a problem for you.
In terms of symptoms, anxiety tends to be linked to one of two things:
- Often needle phobia or anxiety around blood tests is linked to feeling faint, or a fear of feeling faint. Fainting can occur as a result of a drop in blood pressure.
- Otherwise, it may be linked to physical symptoms of stress or panic, such as a racing heart, sweating and/or feeling nauseous.
Understand what to expect
It’s helpful to understand what to expect in your blood test appointment, and prepare yourself for it. The unknown is always scary. Probably the most important thing to keep reminding yourself is that blood tests usually don’t take more than a couple of minutes! So hopefully you shouldn’t have to manage your blood test anxiety for too long.
Usually, at the start of your appointment you will be asked to confirm some details about yourself. Then the phlebotomist will disinfect the skin where the needle will go (you usually get to pick which arm they’ll target!) and wrap a tourniquet around your upper arm, to make the veins stand out more. They may ask you to make a fist or pump your hand – again, to make the veins stand out. Then they’ll put the needle in – usually they’ll warn you just before it happens, and ideally you want to keep your arm relaxed. They may need to keep the needle in while swapping over blood collection tubes, if they need to do a number of tests.
When your phlebotomist removes the needle, they may ask you to press on the vein, to reduce bleeding, and they’ll probably offer a plaster or cotton wool and tape to cover the cut.
Follow some key steps before your appointment
Eat and drink beforehand (if allowed)
Some blood tests require fasting, so if that’s the case, make sure you follow the rules – but fast for the minimum time allowed. It’s really important to stay hydrated, because dehydration lowers your blood pressure, which makes drawing blood more difficult and makes it more likely that you may feel faint after your blood test.
If, like me, you’re also a bit inclined to end up with low blood sugar, then making sure you’ve had enough to eat or a sugary drink beforehand (if allowed) may also help, as low blood sugar can also make you feel faint.
Wrap up warm
It’s helpful to make sure you stay warm. When your body is cold, it causes the veins near the surface of your skin to shrink down, making it harder to draw your blood.
Plan something nice for afterwards
Try to give yourself something to look forward to after your appointment; something that you can focus on as a pleasant experience. It can be something small, like a nice coffee from the hospital canteen, or something bigger like a trip out or exciting dinner plans. Try to focus on this as something positive to look forward to, rather than focusing on the blood test appointment.
Key steps to manage blood test anxiety during your appointment
Talk to your phlebotomist about your blood test anxiety
Make sure you tell whoever’s taking your blood that you’re anxious about blood tests. There’s no need to be embarrassed; they will have seen hundreds of people with needle phobia before. They can help ensure that you feel as comfortable as possible, and distract you from what’s going on. They may also be able to make other accommodations, such as allowing you to lie down if you’re concerned about fainting, or allowing you to bring a friend or family member with you for moral support.
Similarly, if you have veins that are difficult to find, make sure you warn your phlebotomist.
Remember to breathe
So far, so obvious. If you’re anxious, you may find yourself unintentionally holding your breath while you wait for the needle to pinch you. But that won’t help – in fact, holding your breath interrupts the oxygenation of your blood and may make you more likely to faint.
Instead, try using relaxation breathing techniques to help you get through your blood test appointment. Slow, controlled breathing has been proven to affect the nervous system and brain activity, and to increase sensations of comfort and relaxation. So it’s definitely worth a try!
The NHS provides basic online guidance on breathing techniques for stress that are simple and easy to do. You can also easily find guidance and videos online via a quick search. Breathing exercises usually involve counting patterns of breath, which also works to distract your brain from what’s going on.
Try not to look at the needle. These days, I’ve had so many blood tests that they don’t really bother me any more, but when I did find them more stressful, I always found that it was best not to look at my arm or what the phlebotomist was doing. In fact, the sight of the needle or of blood may actually set off the anxiety reaction (vasovagal syncope) that can cause you to faint – so it’s best avoided.
Instead, I would pick something else to look at – there are often posters or notices on hospital walls, so pick one and focus on that instead.
Anxiety can increase when you focus on the source of your anxiety, so distracting yourself is a helpful way to manage blood test anxiety. You can try counting in your head, trying to remember or run through song lyrics, or chatting with the person who’s drawing your blood. You could even watch a video or listen to music on your phone during the blood test, to keep your mind off what’s going on.
Use the Applied Tension technique
If you tend to faint during blood tests, you can use something called the ‘Applied Tension Technique’ to help. This aims to help maintain blood pressure and prevent the sudden drop in blood pressure that can lead to fainting (or just feeling faint), through undertaking some physical exercises. It’s a straightforward technique, which simply involves tensing the muscles in your body to increase your blood pressure. You can read more about this technique and how to use it here.
Consider professional help
If your blood test anxiety or needle phobia is very severe, it can interfere with your medical treatment if it results in you avoiding blood tests. If the steps outlined above don’t help you manage your blood test anxiety, consider whether it could be helpful to seek professional help. You should be able to find a therapist who can help you address your anxiety over time.
Your suggestions to manage blood test anxiety
Have you suffered from needle phobia or blood test anxiety? How did you learn to manage your fears and get through blood tests? Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments!