When I arrived at the Wilmington Air Park mass vaccination center in Wilmington, Ohio, my heart rate was up before I was out of the car. As I waited in line, my anxiety was palpable.
After a quiet old woman wordlessly jabbed me in the deltoid muscle, I sat with my husband for the obligatory 15-minute period to make sure we didn’t have a horrible reaction.
I paid attention to my body. My breathing, my pulse, any pain I felt. At the same time, I also talked to my partner as a way to distract myself. To avoid paying too much attention to my body. That’s what puts me into a full-blown panic attack — overthinking every little sensation.
I felt the back of my hand itch, and calmly yet firmly let my brain know that it was my eczema, not an allergic reaction, so don’t freak out!
Welcome to my pharmacophobia.
Pharmacophobia is an abnormal fear of taking drugs. Someone with pharmacophobia might experience debilitating anxiety when taking prescribed medication because they’re afraid of how their body will react. It can also include a fear of becoming addicted.
I’ve been dealing with it since I was a little kid, when I was afraid to swallow pills.
Whether it’s a new vaccine, an over-the-counter cold medication, or a change in my anxiety prescription, taking any new medicine has always freaked me out.
Despite my phobia, I got through my vaccine day without any severe panic attacks. But a little over a week later, when the vaccine I’d been given was put on pause so that medical experts could investigate a serious and life-threatening side-effect, my anxiety was triggered all over again.
When the Benefits Outweigh the Risks
On April 13, the FDA and CDC recommended a pause in the use of the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) COVID-19 vaccine. The stop was recommended by health experts out of an “abundance of caution” after cases of a rare but severe blood clotting disorder were reported.
Ohio is one of the top states to receive doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, representing nearly 1 in 10 shots distributed to the state.
About 382,100 doses of J&J have been shipped to Ohio, according to the latest data from the CDC. That adds up to 9% of the more than 4.1 million total doses of all available vaccines. A recent inquiry to a state health department as to J&J’s share of doses administered to residents went unreturned, however.
I found out about the pause by way of text message from my husband, who sent me an article. I read it at home, just after dropping my son off at school. All cases had appeared in women between the ages of 18 and 48. All of them happened within 13 days of receiving the shot.
That’s my demographic.
“At least you’re probably fine!” I texted back. He’d been more hesitant about the vaccine than I was — even with my anxiety surrounding taking new medications.
Just days ago, his dad had called him and told him not to get any of the vaccines — and not to let anyone we know get it. Um, tell that to my side of the family, who lost someone we love due to COVID-19 and who are already mostly fully vaccinated.
“But I’m worried about you,” my husband texted in response. “Duh!”
I responded with a hysterical cry-laughing emoji. It fit my mood perfectly as I felt my nervous energy spike.
That’s what this pause is for, my panicky side thought. To see how many more women are going to have this response.
The waiting certainly didn’t help my anxiety disorder, but I hoped for the best. At the same time, I didn’t regret getting vaccinated. COVID-19, after all, has a higher risk of blood clots.
COVID-19 can make blood cells more likely to clump up and form clots. While large clots can cause heart attacks and strokes, much of the heart damage caused by COVID-19 is believed to stem from very small clots that block tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the heart muscle. Other parts of the body affected by blood clots include the lungs, legs, liver, and kidneys. COVID-19 can also weaken blood vessels and cause them to leak, which contributes to potentially long-lasting problems with the liver and kidney — Mayo Clinic Staff
No question that getting coronavirus would set my anxiety off far worse than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Ohio's History of Vaccine Innovation
It’s a strange juxtaposition of my personality. As riddled as I am with irrational phobias, I’m also very aware of what is rational, practical, and factual.
I’m aware that the chances of developing dangerous blood clots from the vaccine are extremely rare. I’m also aware that my chances of developing a life-threatening allergic reaction after taking a new medication are low — especially because I have no known allergies.
It’s actually more likely that birth control will kill a woman than the J&J vaccine (by the way, we really need to address the health risks of the pill, while we’re talking about all this).
But no amount of rational thinking could stop my flight or fight system (anxiety) from going haywire for days on end as I monitored my health and tried my best not to develop rare blood clots — as if I could avoid the issue through sheer force of willpower.
It got especially bad when I started doom-scrolling Twitter and read comments about how “there’s more to the story” and “something they’re not telling us.” I’m sure these Twitter know-it-alls are experienced scientists who have been studying and working directly with vaccine technology for decades.
Oh, wait. They’re actually clueless trolls who have no career background in basic or clinical research. Sometimes I forget that bit.
Conspiracy theorist or no, issues like this are the reality as we work toward advances in medicine. As someone who interviews medical professionals as part of my day job, I know the risk and reward of new medicine on a deeply personal level. This is what you sign up for when you elect to take a vaccine.
Think of what the volunteers risked in the very first COVID-19 vaccine trials. Just regular Joes and Josefinas and non-binary Jos, going above and beyond by risking themselves for the good of saving lives.
Think of the front-line healthcare workers, getting sick and dying when they treat an anti-masker or anti-vaxxer who says stuff to them like, “I won’t risk my health by taking a vaccine that’s been rushed.”
You mean, the vaccine that was developed by experts who pulled from decades of prior research and worked efficiently because we’re in a state of emergency?
Sure. Let the brave guinea pigs take all the risk and try to eradicate COVID-19 while others wait it out and pass it around.
The deciding factor in whether any medication should be used is if the benefit outweighs the risks.
The benefit far outweighed the risk when people lined up outside of churches and schools to receive Albert Sabin’s life-saving oral polio vaccine. Cincinnati, Ohio was one of the first city’s to administer the vaccine, and the rest of the country followed close behind.
Without polio vaccine efforts, more than 18 million people who are currently healthy today would have been paralyzed by the virus.
Brave people are fighting the good fight here. And as squeamish as I am about taking medication, I think it’s important that I do my own research — from reliable sources — and make the best decision based on that.
That doesn’t mean that everything is going to go smoothly. Issues like those happening with the Johnson&Johnson vaccine are difficult and, sometimes, life-threatening. But a global pandemic is even more diabolical. And, speaking as a woman who got the problematic vaccine, I look at it now as just a small crazy drop in the crazy ocean that is this pandemic.
What Helps the Anxiety
My case of pharmacophobia is relatively mild. Though it’s not easy, I can take new meds when I have to, unlike some people who have a more severe phobia.
But it does cause me so much anxiety that I can sometimes go into a panic attack after I take the medication. When this happens, I sometimes convince myself that I am having a bad reaction, because my panic attacks often include a racing heart and shortness of breath. Then, once I believe that the medicine is for sure killing me, the panic gets worse.
It’s a vicious psychological cycle.
But there are some things that help me whenever I’m nervous about taking a medication I need. Like reading about it.
For me, having all the info helps. I want to know about any possible side effects or dangerous reactions that can occur so that I can be aware and seek medical help if I need to.
I’m the first to admit that it’s possible to read too much online and get anxiety just from stories you find on random forums — but I at least like to read the paper that comes with my prescription.
It’s the mystery of what could happen that heightens my anxiety, and that’s why I like to read the scientific literature.
I also make sure I can take a new medication when I’m at home, and not right before bed. I like to stay up for a while just so I can monitor myself and make sure everything feels okay.
I’ll also do everything I can to distract myself after I take it. I’ll stream a show that keeps my interest, or clean, read, sing, or write. Pretty much anything to help me avoid reading into every little sensation I feel.
Once I know I can take a medication without having a horrible freak response, I’m fine to take it the next time.
And for those medicines I don’t have to take, I often simply choose not to. To this day, I won’t take cold medication because it makes me feel weird.
One can’t deny that medical science is a marvel. I am grateful to those who are smart enough and dedicated enough to work on figuring out things like vaccines, and I have faith in the experts.
That doesn’t mean we won’t experience human error — we will, like we do in every other part of life. But as a whole, the medical community is working steadily toward progress and being extra careful when they need to be.
I think that’s really something.