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Coping with COVID-19 Vaccine Anxiety

If you live with anxiety, you know that it can show up unannounced and sometimes for reasons that don’t even make sense to you. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, your anxiety levels might be higher than usual, or maybe you’ve been feeling near-constant underlying anxiety. You aren’t alone – uncertainty is a common trigger for many, and the past year has been anything but certain. As we start to get toward the other side of this pandemic, a new anxiety has surfaced for many: getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Here we’ll try to alleviate some of the most common causes of vaccine-related anxiety.

Know that safety wasn’t compromised.

Since most vaccines are developed over many years, it’s understandable that there are questions about how the COVID-19 vaccines were approved so quickly. Here’s the good news: absolutely nothing related to safety was cut out of the process. With most vaccines, it takes years for researchers to find funding and get approvals – but when the pandemic started, emergency funding was made immediately available which shortened the development timeline.

Another part of the quick turnaround is simple probability. In March 2020, research teams all over the world stopped what they were doing and started to work on creating a COVID-19 vaccine. By the end of April 2020, over 95 vaccines were being explored[i]. Typically, there aren’t this many options in the works at the same time, so it can take a lot of trial and error before something is effective. With COVID-19 vaccine development, if a vaccine failed, there was no need to start over – there were still many options that looked promising.

A few other process changes have helped speed things up too. Many manufacturers overlapped steps, like running the first two phases of trials at the same time. Others were able to shorten administrative procedures or bring in new technology that cut down on waiting time. By the time these vaccines were authorized for emergency use by the FDA, they had gone through the same level of safety testing that all other approved vaccines do.

Prepare to feel a little under the weather.

Remember that it is impossible to catch COVID-19 from the vaccine. However, like many vaccines, you may feel some minor side effects. From all the data so far, most side effects have been short-lived and occur within the first few days of getting vaccinated[ii]. The side effects are similar to those of the flu shot and like all vaccines, there is a small chance that some people will have more severe reactions. For safety reasons, you’ll be asked to stay at your vaccination site for about 15 minutes after the shot to make sure you don’t have any immediate negative reactions like an allergy.

Feeling sick is never fun and may be an inconvenience, but side effects are actually a good thing – it means the vaccine is doing its job and helping your body develop immunity to the virus. When you schedule your vaccine, plan to take it easy the day after – get ahead of assignments so you don’t have any urgent deadlines that day, take the day off work or school if needed, or stock up on your favorite comfort foods.

Serious and long-term side effects are unlikely.

While we can’t fully determine long-term side effects in a short timeframe, long-term side effects from vaccines are rare and mRNA vaccines (like those from Pfizer and Moderna) may be even safer than most vaccines because they don’t contain the virus at all. Learning more about how vaccines work can help ease your worries about lasting effects.

It may also help to think about the risk that comes with not being vaccinated. If you don’t get vaccinated, you’re still vulnerable to COVID-19 – and we know that while some people have no symptoms at all, others who contract COVID-19 can have both serious and long-term effects – and there is no way to tell for sure how you’ll be affected. Because the chance of serious and lasting side effects from the vaccine is so small, researchers and public health officials can confidently recommend the vaccine as the best way to reduce your risk of any COVID-19 related health issues.

Researchers will continue to collect and report data on safety, and studies on evaluating safety, effectiveness, and how long immunity lasts will continue for years. Stay informed by relying on reputable resources, like the CDC’s Vaccines page

Think about how to manage your anxiety as your appointment gets closer.

Sometimes we know something will most likely be okay, but just can’t stop worrying about it. If you’re still feeling anxious about getting vaccinated, especially as your appointment date approaches, have some strategies in place:

Notice your automatic negative thoughts. Pay attention to what you’re telling yourself. Next time you catch yourself thinking, “I’m going to have terrible side effects,” recognize that you simply can’t know that yet. Challenge this thought – you might feel run-down, but you can prepare for that, or you might feel completely fine.

Don’t put your fear of COVID-19 onto the vaccine. Fear is very easy to generalize – you know that COVID-19 is a real threat, so your brain may be making the vaccine out to be a real threat, too. The virus and the vaccine are related, but completely different, so make sure you aren’t viewing them as having the same risk level. 

On the day you get vaccinated, distract yourself while you’re waiting. Waiting around for something you’re nervous about can feel terrible – it’s easy to get lost in your own thoughts and work yourself up when you have nothing to do. Bring a game, book, music, or something else to keep your mind busy.

Let the person who administers your shot know that you’re worried. Getting some reassurance from a medical professional can help you relax in the moment. They’ve done this before and can tell you what to expect and remind you of why it’s so important.

[i] Thompson, S.A. (2020, April 3). How long will a vaccine really take? The New York Times.

[ii] West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources. COVID-19 vaccine: Frequently asked questions.