We've been living through a laundry list of anxiety-inducing unknowns during this pandemic.
Dealing with the fear of easily catching and spreading a deadly virus is new. Being forced to make extreme lifestyle sacrifices is new. Weighing the risks vs. the rewards of everything we do outside of our home is new. Coping with social isolation is new.
Now, we're faced with something else that's new: COVID-19 vaccines.
And you're not alone if you're feeling nervous about these brand new vaccines, despite the safety data that's available.
"We like to know what we're getting into, and we generally don't do well with a lot of uncertainty, especially when it comes to our health and our bodies," explains Dr. William Orme, a psychologist at Houston Methodist. "There are plenty of 'what-ifs' a person could ask themself before getting vaccinated. What if I have uniquely bad side effects? What if they rushed things too much? What if there are long-term side effects we don't yet know about? All of these what-ifs can, understandably, contribute to anxiety."
If you're feeling anxious about the COVID-19 vaccine and struggling to make a decision about getting vaccinated in the midst of your anxiety, Dr. Orme shares the following tips:
Face your anxiety rather than avoid it
First thing's first, there's nothing wrong with being anxious about something new.
What can be problematic, however, is letting your anxiety automatically drive your decision-making process instead of you.
"If you're coping with your anxiety related to the COVID-19 vaccines by putting off a decision or avoiding even thinking about it altogether, you don't have control over your decision — your anxiety does," explains Dr. Orme. "Similarly, if your anxiety is causing you to spiral through all the what-ifs without much progress, your overthinking may paralyze you from ever being able to make a decision."
The best way to begin dealing your vaccine anxiety is to recognize and accept that it's real, and then make a conscious effort to handle it in a productive way.
"Think of anxiety as a signal to slow down and be thoughtful about how you want to respond. A productive way might be to start with researching what's known about the vaccines so you can accurately appraise the risk level. From there, you can make the decision that you feel is best and hold on to that feeling when you need reassurance when anxiety surfaces again," recommends Dr. Orme.
Keep in mind, however, if you hope to arrive at a place where you don't feel any anxiety or nervousness whatsoever about these new vaccines, you're not likely to ever actually make a decision at all.
Do your due diligence
Right now, information and opinions about the new COVID-19 vaccines are likely coming at you from all directions: your TV, the internet, your social media feeds, your friends and family.
Feeling that you've assessed the perceived risk level as thoroughly as possible can help ease your anxiety. But not all information about these new vaccines is created equal.
"While appraising the situation and how it might impact your health, make sure you're gathering your facts from a trusted source of information. Some good options are your primary care doctor, the CDC's vaccine web page or credible health websites," recommends Dr. Orme. "Be aware that headlines and personal opinions expressed on social media may be based on less credible news sources."
Even after doing plenty of research, there are still some what-ifs that just won't come with answers right now. This is when it's helpful to weigh the known and unknown risks.
For instance, if you're concerned about the potential for long-term side effects of COVID-19 vaccines, it may help to consider what we know about the side effects of COVID-19 , as well as the frequency and severity of long-term side effects of other common vaccines that have been studied for a long time.
Discuss your concerns with someone you trust
As mentioned, there's a lot of information to take in about the new COVID-19 vaccines. After trying to digest it all on, it may help to discuss your concerns with someone you trust.
"With any feeling of anxiety, it can be beneficial to turn to someone you trust for support. While this can be hard to do during the pandemic, even something simple as talking through your decision with someone on the phone can help reassure you," says Dr. Orme. "Let the person know you're nervous and give them space to constructively weigh in on your decision-making process if they have concerns."
Avoid generalizing fear of COVID-19 with fear of the vaccine
Fear can be both very strong and easily generalizable.
For example, after being bitten by a stray dog at a park, you've become afraid of dogs — all dogs, even the ones that are on a leash or wagging their tails affectionately. You might even be afraid to visit that same park, regardless of whether there are dogs present or not. Your fear has generalized from one dog and one event towards the things that are associated: all dogs and the park.
"In the case of vaccine anxiety, your mind has already identified that COVID-19 is a threat that's very real and dangerous. Now, your fear may generalize to the COVID-19 vaccine, and it may be an automatic, conditioned response you might not even realize is happening," says Dr. Orme. "While COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine are related, they are distinctly separate. The threat from COVID-19 is real, while the threat you may feel from the COVID-19 vaccine could very well be perceived."
Ask yourself if you have a deeper motivation for being vaccinated
Look — we all, of course, want this pandemic to end. And we also know that vaccine-induced immunity is a huge step in the right direction. But this truth may not be enough as you make a decision that you feel is right for your health but is still anxiety-inducing.
"Make space beyond the obvious reasons for getting vaccinated and see if you can find other powerful sources of motivation to lean into. For instance, maybe getting vaccinated is important to you because it might reduce your risk of passing the virus to someone who's more likely to get very ill from COVID-19. There's always value in finding a deeper sense of purpose," adds Dr. Orme.