Am I unreasonable to feel anxious about having a coronavirus jab?
A new vaccine is about to be rolled out but many of us still feel uneasy about the prospect of having such a new jab. Are we mad, bad or totally valid in our reservations?
If there’s one thing that many experts seem to agree on these days, it’s that life won’t return to ‘normal’ until we have a vaccine. Society will continue to ground to a halt every so often until we’ve got a way to quell the spread of Covid-19 once and for all.
But given that this is such a new disease and the fact that the world is racing to find a vaccine at any cost, how reasonable is it to feel anxious about having the jab once it’s ready?
According to a survey of 70,000 Brits by University College London, 53% believe that vaccines can cause unforeseen issues, with over a third maintaining that natural immunity is better than that from vaccines. Clearly, a lot of us are nervous about jabs - something health experts are now calling ‘vaccine hesitancy’.
It’s not that we’re antivax or strongly opposed to the science behind having jabs; we have fears and are probably a little complacent about the risks of not being vaccinated. Many of us have been raised during an era in which previously killer diseases have been all but eradicated; polio, smallpox, diphtheria were all once dangerous illnesses that killed or disabled huge swathes of the population. We’ve forgotten that because vaccines have enabled us to grow up without the threat of life-shortening sickness.
This new vaccine is different.
We keep reading in the news how desperately the scientific community is scrambling for an effective recipe. A year ago, we’d never heard of coronavirus and yet here we are, trying to immunise folk against it. How can we know the potential ramifications?
‘It’s natural to feel anxious about the idea of having a new vaccine when we don’t know a lot about it,’ explains Emma Lee from Living Well UK - a National Lottery-funded three year programme of mental health support.
‘If we don’t have a lot of information about something, our anxieties towards it tend to increase as our minds can imagine the worst. If you are experiencing anxiety about a new vaccine, you could try speaking with your GP or do some research of your own to find out a bit more.
And Emma points out that feeling stressed in general at the moment is completely normal. ‘This is due to the uncertainty of the future and the added pressures that have come due to COVID-19. This may increase our stresses about money, job security, family health, relationships and so on.’
So many of us are anxious at the moment and according to psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Antony Constantinou, it’s important to recognise that feeling as a natural reaction to preconceived threat. Our ‘fight or flight response’ has been activated for months, as the pandemic continues to threaten our health, the economy and our futures. And that anxiety is affecting how we react to news of a potential vaccine.
‘Vaccines have always sent out mixed messages,’ Antony tells talkhealth.
‘It can prove difficult when the average person hears several perspectives and positions from all kinds of sources, many of which are not sound or conclusive.
‘It’s so important that the information we receive comes from viable, reliable and trusted sources. I suggest trusting the WHO on the latest scientific studies on vaccinations and the NHS and ignoring pseudoscientific propaganda.’
Making your own decisions
Senior psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo says that the psychology of vaccine uptake is complex. It’s all to do with how we think and feel about our own safety and risk from illness. Social factors such as hearing others talk about having vaccinations on social media, in person, or on group chats are also big influences. And of course, fake news is huge in turning people off from having them.
‘It is natural to seek out answers to things causing us to worry and a new vaccine is no different. Acknowledging natural concern and weighing up evidence for having a vaccine does not automatically equate with the conception of being an “anti-vaxxer”,’ Dr Quinn-Cirillo stresses.
‘There is concern reported in the media that the vaccine for Covid may be rushed beyond normal timescales associated with the development of vaccines. It is important to note that these concerns can equally be shared by those who have a history of being vaccinated and vaccinating their children. Every new vaccine can open up a gateway to debate around the pros and cons of vaccine administration. Don’t forget that uncertainty on top of already existing emotions brought about by the pandemic may further fuel anxiety. It is important, therefore, that people are supported to seek out reputable sources of information to inform their decision-making process.’
Your best defense against worry is to remind yourself just how many people have been vaccinated in the world to no ill effect, and to really do your own research from reputable sources such as your GP, the NHS, The Department for Health, Public Health England, GOV.uk, the Royal College of Nursing and the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE).
Reasons not to worry
Imperial College London and the University of Oxford - two of the most celebrated universities and medical research teams in the world - are both busy developing vaccines. They have their own reputations and global standings on the line; neither can afford to get this wrong.
Few vaccination scares have been based on valid evidence
There have been big vaccine scares in the past but few have had any basis in reality. The first major panic was in 1974 when John Wilson, a doctor at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital linked the whooping cough vaccine with brain damage. That claim - which was later discredited - saw takeup drop from 77% to just 31% in four years.
Sudden Infant Death was linked to the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, as was autism. The now disgraced Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet linking the MMR jab to autism and bowel disease which prompted a massive media storm and saw hundreds of thousands of parents refuse the jab. By 2004, the UK’s MMR vaccination levels had fallen to 80% - well below the 95% needed for herd immunity. It turned out, after subsequent fatalities, that Wakefield had been paid over £400,000 by lawyers preparing for an MMR lawsuit and therefore had an interest in promoting the apparent dangers of the jab. His claims have subsequently been discredited and he’s been struck off for ‘dishonesty and irresponsibility’.
The above are just two examples of the devastation caused by pseudoscience.
Science has moved on
While vaccine hesitancy is pretty natural, it’s obvious that science has developed hugely since vaccines first came into circulation. If you’d trust a surgeon to perform a C-section or put your faith in an emergency blood transfusion, why wouldn’t you have confidence in a medicine designed to keep you safe from a virus?
Back in the 19th century, people were terrified about having smallpox vaccinations. After all, it doesn’t seem logical to infect seemingly healthy people. But we’ve come a long way since Victorian medicine; in the 1800s, one in 100 women died during live childbirth while today, it’s more like 1 in 10,000.
Coping strategies for reducing anxiety when the Covid-19 vaccine arrives
Antony and Emma have come up with some techniques for allaying fears ahead of getting jabbed:
- Chat to your GP. Talk to your GP if you’re experiencing an increase in stress or a decrease in mental health. They can help you access suitable support, whether that’s 1:1 sessions, self-help programmes or simply pointing you in the direction of reliable, accurate medical information about coronavirus and the vaccine. Never be ashamed or scared about reaching out for help: more often than not, having someone to share your worries with immediately makes them feel better! What’s more, learning coping techniques will be handy to have for the rest of your life, being able to transfer over to other life stresses you may face.
- Practice gratitude. It’s time to make yourself happier and nurture your relationships with others. It’s as simple as sending a letter or text to someone you love. Even if we do not directly contact someone who we are grateful for, it may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you and direct our gratitude towards them. Writing a gratitude journal can be hugely beneficial. Writing down how grateful we are for the NHS and the modern health care system can have powerful effects in developing trust and grounding us away from anxiety.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean practising inhuman yogic poses next to a tree. It can be anything that grounds us in the moment and the activity we are experiencing in that very moment. Being mindful and in the moment, places us in a state away from fear and anxiety and in our direct current experience. It can alleviate a person’s anxiety from the fear of “what could be” to “let it be”.
- Let go of conspiracy theories: If a vaccine is readily available, rather than focussing on the future or conspiracy theories, it can be so cathartic release to tune out of Chinese whispers and trust the most recent scientific literature.Recent studies suggest the knowledge of coherent statistics from reliable sources and literature ground us and alleviate stress and anxiety.
- Look at what the past can tell us: Modern science has accelerated at speeds which those before our current generations would not be able to comprehend. The coronavirus is not the first virus to cause a pandemic the world has experienced. It takes just one look at our history to realise how far we have come and how much we can overcome.
- Give yourself a break from the TV: The World Health Organisation has acknowledged how watching TV and overindulging in the media regarding COVID- 19 can affect our overall mental health. The WHO recently shared advice on how to deal with stress during the coronavirus outbreak. Some of the advice included:
- Avoid watching, reading or listening to news that could cause you to feel anxious or distressed
- Seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones
- Seek information updates at specific times
- Switch off or limiting what you listen, watch or read.
Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.
Information written by the talkhealth team
Last revised: 11 November 2020
Next review: 11 November 2023