Aug. 9, 2001 -- "As long as I can remember, I have had a tremendous fear of blood," says Rhonda Reddick, of Irving, Texas. "Normally, when I heard or saw anything like a blood drive going on, I would keep my head down and all but run past, feeling faint the entire time."
Three years ago, when the company she was working for held a blood drive, Reddick felt her time had come. "My first impulse was panic," she tells WebMD. "But for the first time I really thought about it and realized how much I needed to get a handle on the fear."
Reddick is not alone. Although an estimated 60% of the American population is eligible to donate blood, only 5% of those actually roll up their sleeves. The reasons are many and complex, but among them is the simple human fear of needles and blood.
"It's a strong aversion for many," says Peter Page, MD, senior medical officer with the American Red Cross, in Washington.
Page says many people who have "needle shyness" have had painful experiences with vaccinations or blood tests, both of which are quite different from what happens typically when a person donates blood.
"When you donate blood, you are lying down on a flat bed or table," he says. "You don't get up and walk right away. When you feel comfortable, you get up and have juice and cookies."
Still, it can be an upsetting experience for some people, especially the first time. Christopher France, PhD, a psychologist who has spent 15 years studying people's motivations and inhibitions around blood donation, says many Americans who donate blood do it once, and never return.
Among those, some cite a bad experience -- feelings of dizziness or faintness -- as the reason for not returning. Approximately 2% of donors will actually faint during or immediately after donating, but as many as 20-25% will experience some degree of dizziness, lightheadedness, and faintness, according to France.
In a study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, France and colleagues found that a strategy of "distraction" -- employing goggles and earphones that allowed donors to watch a 3-D movie during the blood draw -- can help alleviate symptoms of dizziness, lightheadedness, and faintness for some people.
But it won't help all people. France says years of research on human coping strategies have identified two general coping mechanisms: "monitoring," sometimes known as vigilance, and "blunting," also known as avoidance.
People who are "monitors" want lots of information before they undertake a task. In contrast, people with a blunting style of coping want to know as little as possible -- and it's those people for whom distraction is most likely to work.
In the study, 112 first-time blood donors were randomly assigned to receive either the distraction strategy during blood donation, or the regular American Red Cross procedure for blood collection without the distraction strategy. Later, participants in both groups answered a questionnaire about symptoms of dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness. They also answered a questionnaire assessing their coping style -- either monitoring or blunting.
The results were as predicted: People with the blunting style who also received the distraction strategy had significantly fewer negative symptoms, while monitors who received the strategy were not helped.
France says the goggles used in the study were $500, but the basics of the distraction technique can be adopted without much expense. "A television and headphones can provide enough distraction, as long as the donor has choice of what he wants to watch ... and control over its volume," says France, who is with the department of psychology at Ohio University, in Athens.
Page says the "buddy system" is a good distraction. "What we have found works for many new donors is to bring a friend who has donated before, to go with them and give them reassurance," he tells WebMD.
And France says the following strategies have been tried by first-time donors and may be helpful:
- Bring headphones or a Walkman
- Young donors may want to drink a cup of coffee before rolling up their sleeves. The caffeine helps raise blood pressure and counteract the symptoms of dizziness and faintness. (For older donors, or those with high blood pressure, coffee may not be advised before donation, France says.)
- Try muscle exercises during donation. Flexing and relaxing muscles in a leg or arm for five-second intervals also helps raise blood pressure and counteract symptoms.
Rhonda Reddick seems to have faced down the fear: Her next donation will be her fourth, and she hopes to become a more regular donor.
Her first time proved not to be the horror she thought it would be. "Mainly because the nurse stood beside me, calmly talking to me and reminding me of what good that one donation would do," Reddick says.