UNC Health Talk

Nervous About COVID-19 Vaccination? Read This

For the past year, the world has faced unprecedented uncertainty and challenges due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. More than 50 percent of adults in the United States have reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted because of stress over COVID-19.

Now, after months of angst and fear, two COVID-19 vaccines are available, and more are coming. Supplies are limited, and not all Americans will be eligible for a few months, but this is a significant step in the right direction in helping to beat the virus and return to a more normal life. While many are eagerly awaiting their turn to receive the vaccinations, others may feel anxiety around the decision to vaccinate.

UNC Health clinical psychologist Catherine Forneris, PhD, shares these three tips on how to cope with anxiety around vaccination.

1. Identify the cause of your fear.

Fear and anxiety typically have three root causes, Dr. Forneris says: a “catastrophic misinterpretation of a physical symptom,” “fear of the unknown” or “making a negative prediction.” Here are some examples:

  • Catastrophic misinterpretation: You have a headache and leap to the conclusion that it’s a brain tumor.
  • Fear of the unknown: Your uncle has never been on a plane before, so he is afraid of flying.
  • Negative predictions: Your daughter doesn’t want to apply to her top college because she worries she’s not good enough to get in.

For some people thinking about getting the vaccine, “all of those pathways could get activated,” Dr. Forneris says.

To address your fears, first identify what you’re scared of and then determine how you can tackle that fear.

If you’re worried the vaccines are new and therefore unsafe, educate yourself through reliable sources about the way they were developed and the science of vaccines. If you’re worried vaccination will make you feel sick and you won’t be able to parent or go to work, take a moment to assess the real risk (the vast majority of side effects are mild) and problem-solve how you can feel better about it (maybe you’ll want to have your sister on call to babysit, just in case).

“For some people, just the act of being able to categorize the source of their anxiety or fear is helpful because breaking it down helps them see they can deal with it,” Dr. Forneris says. “They can acquire some skills for managing or dealing with their fear.”

For people struggling with anxiety that impairs their quality of life or daily functioning, therapy can be a big help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular is very useful in managing anxiety. In CBT, a therapist teaches you the skills to identify and change destructive thinking patterns that increase your anxiety.

2. Get the facts.

Once you identify your specific concerns or fears about the COVID-19 vaccines, find information that addresses them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is the best resource for the latest information on COVID-19 and the available vaccines. Also, check the website of your state health department.

“There’s so much misinformation out there, so it’s important you get the accurate information,” Dr. Forneris says.

You also can talk to your doctor if you have questions about the vaccines and if there is any reason you should not get vaccinated.

“A primary care doctor is going to be the person who knows you best and can address your specific issues and concerns,” Dr. Forneris says.

Although it is important to stay informed, don’t get sucked into consuming too much news or social media. Give yourself permission to take a break from news if it becomes overwhelming. And don’t forget to vet your sources, online and off, to make sure the information can be trusted. There’s a lot of false information out there about both COVID-19 and the vaccines.

3. Make an informed decision.

If you are worried about getting vaccinated, your primary care provider can help you make a decision based on your risk for acquiring COVID-19, your risk for having severe disease if you get COVID-19, and the risks versus the benefits of getting a vaccine.

Some things to know: The COVID-19 vaccines have undergone significant testing. Early results from multiple studies of COVID-19 vaccines have been made public. These trials show that the vaccines are about 95 percent effective at preventing people from getting sick with COVID-19.

In terms of side effects after receiving the vaccine, your arm may be sore, red or warm to the touch. These symptoms usually go away on their own within a week. Other side effects may include a headache, fever, chills or muscle aches, especially after receiving the second shot. These side effects are considered normal, and a sign that the COVID-19 vaccine is working to activate your immune response and protect you.


Visit yourshot.org for the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines.

Photo credit: © Halfpoint Images – gettyimages.com