I didn’t expect to faint at the sight of my son’s blood. As a mother, my job
is to nurse boo-boos -- and when when my son came to me after smashing his
thumb a few months ago, I prepared to do my best Florence Nightingale. Then I
saw the blood.
The room began to spin. I broke out in a cold sweat. I felt all the color
drain from my face. After yelling upstairs to my husband to take over, I slid
to the kitchen floor.
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Psychologists don’t know exactly why up to 15% of us experience the plunge
in blood pressure that causes us to faint whenever we see blood. One theory is
that the phenomenon -- officially termed “blood-injury phobia” -- is an
“The idea is that back in time, when someone was coming at someone else with
a sharp stick or rock, a kind of genetic variation allowed certain people to
faint in response,” explains Tyler C. Ralston, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in
Honolulu, who treats people with blood-injury phobias. Warriors who fainted
looked dead and were passed over during battle. The blood pressure drop also
might have helped those who were wounded avoid bleeding to death. Survivors
then passed on the “fainting” gene.
Treating blood-injury phobia
And while this might have been helpful to our ancestors, it can be
absolutely debilitating for people who can’t make it through a simple blood
Fortunately, psychologists have devised ways to treat the fear, so if you’re
trouble staying upright at the sight of blood, try to find a psychologist
trained in treating phobias. For a referral, check with the Association for
Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (www.aabt.org) or the Anxiety Disorders
Association of America (www.adaa.org). The therapist may be able to give you
relaxation training (progressively relaxing the muscles of the body), which
can be helpful for blood phobia.
The technique that appears most effective is called applied tension,
developed by Swedish psychologist Lars-Göran Öst, which works best when coupled
with a self-exposure program.
To learn applied tension you work with a therapist. When you start feeling
light-headed, you tense the muscles in your arms, legs, and trunk for about 10
to 15 seconds to raise your blood pressure and prevent fainting. Once you have
mastered applied tension, the therapist exposes you, step by step, to the
situations that trigger your phobia.
The first step might involve thinking about driving to the clinic where you
have blood drawn. In later sessions you might watch videotapes of blood tests
or simulate the experience.“I may come in wearing a lab coat and put the
tourniquet on [the patient’s] arm,” says Martin Antony, PhD, psychology
professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of Overcoming Medical
Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Blood, Needles, Doctors, and Dentists.
After three to five sessions, you should be able to look at blood without the
world starting to swim.
SOURCES: Tyler C. Ralston, PsyD, clinical psychologist,
Honolulu. Martin M. Anthony, PhD, ABPP, professor in the Department of
Psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. Jeffrey Lohr, PhD,
professor of Psychology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Bracha
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