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Shared experience

A needle phobia doesn’t need to hold you back

When needle-phobic Billy Cole was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes aged 56, trying to finger prick and inject was consuming his whole life. Here, the former British Commonwealth-winning athlete shares how he overcame his phobias and gives insight to others dealing with similar fears.
Content last reviewed and updated: 25.04.2024

A close up photo of Billy Cole smiling.

I’ve had a phobia of needles and blood all my life. If I had to go for a blood test or injection, I’d be extremely anxious and would pass out when I got there. It was so bad that even watching my wife have a routine blood test when she was pregnant made me faint. It felt like the whole room was filling up with blood and it was taking over everything. It was a strange feeling that I just couldn’t explain.

When I got my diabetes diagnosis three years ago, it felt like a nightmare. I had no idea how I was going to take finger prick tests and inject myself. I managed to self-inject once at the hospital, but I couldn’t look, which caused a lot of bruising. It was all pretty harrowing.

When I got home, I struggled on for a couple of months. It was a difficult time, and my family were worried. No matter what I did, I couldn’t manage my diabetes. I was constantly anxious about injecting and testing my blood sugar levels. It consumed my whole life. It was compounded by the fact I was being treated for type 2 when a private test I went for showed I actually had type 1.

Getting support

Once I got on the right medication, my diabetes team assigned me a psychologist to help me tackle my phobias. We explored what might be causing them through weekly video calls. Thankfully, things began to change.

I realised that my blood phobia stemmed from an accident I’d witnessed in the past. Once I understood this, we started to work on familiarising myself with blood.

The process involved looking at a selection of images given to me each week, which became progressively more intense for me to view and rationalise. These included images of a range of needles and injection devices, blood and the equipment used to take blood tests.

I don’t really know the cause of my needle phobia. It was probably the fear of needles and the unknown, and being in an environment that I wasn’t comfortable with. We worked on getting to know the equipment I was using, the injection process and understanding what I was feeling about it all. Persevering and familiarising myself with the self-injecting technique, made it much less of an event.

Overcoming phobias

Talking with a professional helped me to understand that my phobias were psychological. Knowing why I was afraid and having the strategies to deal with it meant with time, I began to overcome them.

One major milestone in my treatment was watching the phlebotomist take a routine blood sample. Previously, that would’ve caused me significant anxiety and I would’ve passed out. Now, I have no problem giving bloods for routine tests

Technology and talking

My diabetes team put through an application for me to have a Freestyle Libre, which checked my blood sugar levels without having to prick a finger. This was before they became readily available on the NHS. It was a massive help as I didn’t have to worry about finger prick tests and could concentrate on overcoming my needle phobia. It put me back in control and I got my blood sugar levels almost back in the target range.

Speaking to other patients was also important. I went on the DAFNE course, which helps people with type 1 manage their condition. Chatting to others newly diagnosed was even more helpful than the course itself. I also have a friend, Keith, who has lived with type 1 for a long time. Hearing his observations, being able to ask questions and get his advice was invaluable.

Now, injecting myself is automatic and I don’t even give it a second thought. Having type 1 is just part of my life which I manage quite easily. Compared to what I was when I was first diagnosed and where I am now, it’s worlds apart.

Advice to others

It’s a normal thing for some people to have a phobia of blood or needles, so don’t be embarrassed. Overcoming it won’t happen overnight and it does take time and focus. But with the help of healthcare professionals, you can do it.

A needle phobia isn’t something that needs to hold you back. You can tackle it and make it an insignificant part of being type 1.

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