Let’s talk about Vaccine Anxiety

It’s been a year!  An actual year of this virus upending our lives and an overwhelming year.  The vaccine rollout is gaining speed, and every week more people are eligible.  While it can feel like you’ve been waiting forever, it can also feel like suddenly it’s your turn.  Let’s take a few minutes to unpack what is going on in our brains that could be creating some surprising or confusing emotions so that you can move through these weeks in a healthier way.  

Our limbic system is the innermost part of our brain and is the most primitive part.  It is glorious because it keeps us alive and it keeps us safe.  Tucked inside the limbic system is our amygdala, the seat of our emotions, which is intimately connected with the physical functioning of our body.  The amygdala is probably most famous for triggering our flight or fight response but it also produces more nuanced emotions.  Since the amygdala really wants to keep us alive, and has been doing a good job for millions of years, it reacts strongly to situations that are new and/or threatening with fear or anxiety to motivate us to avoid the new or threatening situation.  The amygdala is also very quick on the draw, so the emotions and associated thoughts are typically our first and strongest reaction.  

Think of your amygdala as the part of you that wants to behave like a toddler. It wants what it wants, and it’s not going to do anything it doesn’t want to do. It tells you everything with great conviction.

There are a lot of aspects of this vaccine that our amygdala isn’t going to like.  It’s important to note that our amygdalas have been on high alert for a year now with all the new and changing situations and tired amygdalas are overly bossy.  Most of us won’t be getting our vaccine at our doctor’s office.  We will be going to mass vaccination sites, or commercial pharmacies in the area.  If the national guard is running your vaccination site, you are going to be interacting with a lot of people in military uniforms, which is not something most of us do on a regular basis.  You are also going to have someone sticking you with a needle and injecting something into your body.  Your amygdala gives a hard no on this part.  It is going to try to pull up all the reasons your should not let this person give you an injection.  

This is the part where your frontal lobe gets involved, but unlike the amygdala, the frontal lobe is much more measured in it’s response.  Our frontal lobes are really wonderful.  This is where our more advanced cognitions form and is the most sophisticated part of our brain.  Our personality, problem solving, social skills, speech, ability to plan and ability to regulate emotions all happen in the frontal lobe. 

Our frontal lobe is the adult in the situation when our amygdala is acting more like a tired and hungry three year old.  

So what are some practical steps? 

  • First, validate your own difficult emotions.  Of course you are nervous or even scared.  This is all new.  The situation is new and the vaccine is new.  Are you nervous about side effect?  That makes sense, so you will wait 15 or maybe even 20 minutes after your shot to make sure you are ok, and you’ll sign up for the post vaccine check-ins.  We have a great medical system full of kind, brilliant and hardworking folks who can take care of us if we need it.  
  • Second, thank your emotions.  I’m glad your emotions are working to keep you safe.  It would be kind of strange if you had no difficult feelings about walking into someplace new and letting a stranger give you a shot.  Your body cares about you and that is a good thing.  When we recognize and accept our emotions, they naturally calm down because they have done their job of getting our attention.  The third part is the best.  
  • Third, lean into comforting and motivating thoughts. The problem solving, reasoning, planning part of your thoughts comes into the conversation here.  The hero doctors and scientists who have been working on vaccines, in general, for more than a century, these types of vaccines for decades, and this particular one for a year and the people who participated in the trials to ensure the safety of these vaccines, trust them and be thankful for their hard work.  I really love nerdy scientist, researchers and virologists.  Think about your own future.  What will it be like to not worry so much about getting sick, or worse getting someone you love sick?  How amazing is it that our getting vaccinated helps protect others and get our community and our world back to the things we care about!?  Think about all the kids who can’t get vaccinated yet and know that your vaccination helps protect them.  Think about kids in school, eating in restaurants, concerts, church, meals with friends, traveling, hugs…all the things we took for granted and miss so much.  Can you imagine doing that one thing you’ve been looking forward to and feeling peace and confidence to do it?  Take a moment to imagine it.  

As a health care provider, I am many weeks past my second shot and being with my parents who are also vaccinated feels so good.  I can literally feel a lightness in my body now because the worry is gone.  Each week, people I love are getting vaccinated and, in my mind, I hold an image of  crowd of protected people that is growing and it feels so good.  I’m so so thankful! Teachers are getting vaccinated and that protects my kids who are too young to get vaccinated (one of whom has asthma).  I am proud to be a part of the growing group of vaccinated who are loving our neighbors and ourselves.  


So nervousness, you have a small place here, but hope and gratitude take the day!  Hands in friends. Schedule your vaccine when it’s your turn to take care of yourself and your community.

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