How can I stop fainting around blood?
April 6, 2009 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Help me overcome my queasiness and nausea around blood and guts.

I used to be fine around blood, cuts and all sorts of yucky stuff (I was highly accident prone as a kid and had had about 20 stitches by the time I was 14, I would happily watch the doctor stitching away). However, starting about 12 or so years ago I began to get very queasy around blood, not just my own but other people's too. Just listening to friends describe certain procedures has made me extremely nauseous.

I can't give blood (I faint), anytime I have a serious cut (serious = requiring stitches) I tend to be fine until I look at it, start trying to clean it or (and this one kills me) just start thinking about it. Then I have to sit down or lie down until my head and tummy stop spinning. I'm not anaemic and I don't believe this is anything medical; I'm pretty sure it's all in my head.

Does anybody have any tricks for overcoming this? I'd prefer it if it didn't involve massive doses of exposure to cadavers, ambulances and the emergency ward at the hospital. I've got my first child on the way (yay) and don't want to be completely useless if/when she has a serious accident.

posted by gwpcasey to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I found that my issues with blood and guts went away when I had my first child. I mean, there's a lot of that stuff during the birth and there's a lot of...discharge and stuff afterwards. I was pretty useless before kids if I was involved in/saw/heard about any sort of accident/injury.

It could have been a matter of me just accepting it, or subconsciously knowing I had to get over it. I didn't do anything special.
posted by cooker girl at 6:34 AM on April 6, 2009

Do you think adreneline would kick in and solve this for you, if your kid were the one injured?

IANAP (I am not a parent), but I was able to rise to the occasion in a very focused manner and staunch a deep, gushing cut my father got while mowing the lawn, even though I get queasy about my own injuries or giving blood.
posted by availablelight at 6:35 AM on April 6, 2009

This is actually something of a normal reaction, maybe a bit on the over sensitive side, but not much. Blood and guts are referred to as viscera. The phrase "visceral reaction" comes from the reaction that everyone (normal) gets to seeing viscera. Through evolution, our vision is highly tuned to spot red in part because red=blood=danger and death.

Also, I have no idea how old you are, but a lot of people's sensitivity to viscera changes dramatically during and shortly after puberty. I have no idea why this is.

But don't worry about how you'll do if the kid has an accident. First, giving birth to the kid will be plenty of exposure to all sorts of goodness. Second, if your kid does have an accident, adrenaline will take over and you will feel nothing other than "GET TO THE HOSPITAL RIGHT NOW."
posted by Pastabagel at 6:41 AM on April 6, 2009

Unfortunately, exposure is the only way to overcome a phobia. You can't think your way out of it. There are a few videos here (MAJORLY NSFW) to get you started.

Actually, overcoming my own fear of traumatic injury was a goal of mine, which I gradually accomplished by viewing progressively more graphic photos, videos, and movies. I was pleasantly surprised that the autopsy video from my link did not gross me out in the least, although I was somewhat disturbed by the coroner's ruthless efficiency.
posted by mpls2 at 6:43 AM on April 6, 2009

I was really queased out by blood and guts, too, but when I decided that I wanted to enter a healthcare field, I knew I had to get over it. You just have to build up to it slowly. I just started watching Discovery Health channel as much as I could (they have lots of real-life ER and surgery shows.) At first I had to close my eyes every time something gross was on. But slowly, I started watching more and more as my curiosity got the better of me, and after a while (probably several months) I was more able to handle that stuff. Eventually I did take anatomy and I was scared to see the cadaver, but once I did I adjusted quickly. And now I've dissected a whole lot of cadavers. As far as blood goes, I've actually watched a lot of surgery now (in person) and I love it, it doesn't gross me out anymore.

So yeah, I think seeing a lot of it is the best way, but I don't think you have to see it in person, at least not right off the bat. Start by watching gory TV shows, and then if you think you can handle it, move up to volunteering in an ER.

Also, this is pure speculation, but don't you think maybe your reaction to seeing your child (congrats, by the way) have some sort of injury would be different? I think your maternal take-care-of-my-kid instinct would be strong enough to keep you from passing out. But I don't have kids, and I'm not grossed out by blood anymore, so I don't actually know :-)
posted by lblair at 6:44 AM on April 6, 2009

(When I was studying to be an EMT, our textbook had a section in back consisting of nothing but gory photos. Officially, it was a sort of a reference guide to different kinds of trauma. Unofficially, though, it was great for leafing through to desensitize yourself to that shit.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:55 AM on April 6, 2009

I would suggest talking to your doctor and getting a script for propranolol. You can take this before exposure to something that would cause this reaction. It has long been an off-label treatment for working with phobias. It turns out that you can take it, expose yourself to the fear-inducing stimulus, and you won't react to it very much, if at all. Once this is done several times, many have found that the subject no longer reacts strongly, or perhaps not even weakly.

Your fear and reaction is self-reinforcing. Blood terrifies me because I pass out because blood terrifies me because I pass out ... propranolol can break this reinforcement loop. It's a beta blocker.

Dig up some research, bring some printouts to your doctor, and discuss.
posted by adipocere at 7:07 AM on April 6, 2009

There's all sorts of blood and guts in all sorts of video games. Maybe you can build up a tolerance by increasing the realism.

Try the free web game Amateur Surgeon. It's a gory, but cartoony game with lots of blood, organs and injuries. It's really quite horrific, but very unrealistic. From there, look for the Dark Cut games (also free web games).

There's also an innumerable number of other games with all sort of levels of blood and body parts flying around, but that might not be your thing.
posted by jefftang at 7:17 AM on April 6, 2009

The medical term for the condition you are describing is "Vasovegal syncope" - the linked page suggests several treatments.

In the past I also have also had this problem. [I have TWICE fainted in first aid courses during the section where they get into discussion of stuff like illustrating types of bleeding and wounds. Both times the others in the class have assumed that I was a plant primed by the instructor to teach them how to deal with somebody who faints].

As others have suggested I think the way around it is to gradually increase your expose to the sort of material that makes you feel queasy. At that point practice relaxing. For me it is the sort of "mind over matter" process that is a bit like preventing yourself being sea sick by concentrating on the horizon. Whatever instinct it is that used to make me faint is not easily open to rational persuasion - but if you can get used to encountering and dealing with it in small amounts it will help build up your confidence.
posted by rongorongo at 7:26 AM on April 6, 2009

Single user experience here, but I'm going with the "exposure will help you overcome it" folk.

I had always had trouble with blood and guts until I did a brief internship with the UC Davis ER / Trauma unit that was basically designed to give exposure to the medical field to students my age (read: I did a lot of watching). Being in room for a quadruple by-pass surgery, looking inside this dude's chest split wide open and watching the doctors massage his heart to sleep with saline ice, whilst they simultaneously slit his leg open from crotch to knee to find the veins to be applied in the surgery. That's what did it for me (oddly enough my first thought coming out of the room was "I wonder if the caf has cheeseburgers today?).

I still don't find blood and guts particularly comfortable, but I can at least handle it without getting dizzy or feeling ill. I just think of the surgery, a little voice in my head says "this is just like that," and you move on accordingly.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:09 AM on April 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have bad vasovagal syncope. Really bad. Like skimming the answers to this question is making me feel woozy bad.

However, I can attest that (for me) adrenaline kicks in quite well when it comes to someone else's injury. I've helped friends and family with very bad (bloody) wounds without feeling ill at all. Yet I can't even listen to a description of the process of blood donation. So I wouldn't worry too much about that aspect. But I know how hard it is to live with (I can't wear contacts, I freak out if anyone touches my inner wrists or the tops of my feet because the veins are close to the skin, etc.), so I think it's good to deal with it for your own sake. Especially because I think you get caught in a feedback loop; I know I hate the way I feel when I have a vasovagal episode, and the anticipation of it can send me into it even faster.

If you use the exposure strategy, I think you have to be really consistent with it. I had to have blood taken once per month for about a year, and I didn't improve at all in that time. But I had 29-ish days in between needle episodes to not think about blood. Ease into it, of course, but don't give yourself a lot of breaks.

Also, learn what helps you recover -- I can usually come back from the brink of fainting if I drink cold water, the colder the better. You probably can't have cold water around every minute of the day in case someone you know breaks a leg or something, but maybe it would be helpful to do calming things like that while you expose yourself to gory stuff.
posted by transporter accident amy at 8:22 AM on April 6, 2009

This might seem a little extreme, but look into watching an autopsy. Oftimes you can ask your local coroners offices and they will allow viewings (cops, EMT's, forensic anthropology students etc do this all the time - I did). It is really gross, but the one thing it does teach you is to detach yourself from the scene. I spent a little time as an EMT many years ago and that went a long way to fostering that kind of detachment, expecially as, by nature, I really hate seeing blood and people in pain.
posted by elendil71 at 9:55 AM on April 6, 2009

I've suffered from this pretty badly all my life. Exposure, like everyone else has said, is probably the best way to overcome it. Maybe I'll get around to it one day. In the meantime, I've developed some strategies to cope in situations that I simply cannot avoid.

1. When I have to have an injection, for example, I make sure that I take a can of Coke in with me - basically, something as sugary as possible. A flask of very sweet tea would, I imagine, be even better. That's what they give people who have just witnessed something shocking like an horrific car accident. Part of the reason we faint, after all, is because of a sudden and dramatic drop in blood-sugar level combined with a drop in blood pressure.

2. I remember reading somewhere about the suits that fighter pilots have to wear, designed specifically to ensure that the wearer, under the stress of extreme Gs, does not pass out. Apparently, crossing ones legs and tensing ones muscles replicates the function of the suit. I found an interesting study dealing with this phenomenon:

posted by Zé Pequeno at 9:59 AM on April 6, 2009

Yep, exposure. That worked for me as well. I never had issues as bad as yours, but the sight of blood and guts definitely made me a bit queasy a few years ago. Then I went to become a medic, and I had to get over that real quick so as to not be useless, and I ended up watching a lot of gruesome stuff on TV and looking at pictures of traumas to desensitize myself to it. My limited timeline required that I deal with it, fast, so I didn't really ease myself into it... But since you have more time and have a bigger problem, you could ease yourself into it a bit slower and steadier.

I also nth that adrenaline will kick in and help you do whatever it is that needs doing. I don't have children so I don't know anything about parental instincts or whatnot, but I have been in a lot of situations that had lots of gore and trauma to deal with, and the "omg gross I'mgoingtobesick" just never came to mind because there was shit to be done and I was the only one who could do it. If your kid has an accident and you are the one responsible for her, no aversion to blood is going to stop you.
posted by lullaby at 10:57 AM on April 6, 2009

I'll give some different advice that's helped me deal with things that I have had a physical or emotional reaction to. It's not as easy as desensitizing or distracting, but can be effective.

You need to try and change the way you think about the material that causes your physical reaction.

First, you need to try and spot the thought that filters through your head when you see blood. It might not be much of a thought, but it's enough to act as a trigger for your physical reaction. It could be something as simple as "BLOOD!" or "OW!" or "GROSS!" or "OH MY GOD!"

Second, try and replace that triggered thought with something more distant and clinical. Something along the lines of "Blood is a liquid carrying hemoglobin, red blood cells, and white blood cells." I try to focus on the things that either make up the material that causes the reaction, or the mechanics behind it. For example, one thing that used to always make me hurl was fecal matter. Cleaning up after my cat was always a chore. But then I learned that feces is made of bile and dead red blood cells. (that's what gives it the brownish-yellow color). The smell is just the by product of some bacteria.

You could try something similar with blood and wounds, focusing on their composition and mechanics.

Hope this helps.
posted by davidamann at 11:35 AM on April 6, 2009

I'm a champion vasovagal-er, especially when the injured person in question is me. But I've also been in situations where other people have been injured, and I've risen to the occasion admirably. Once, a dog bit a friend of mine in the face with predictably bloody results, and I managed to corral the dog and provide first aid to the friend. Once the friend was entirely squared away and resting comfortably, and everything was cleaned up, I passed out.
posted by jennyb at 11:39 AM on April 6, 2009

Response by poster: Am tempted to mark all of your answers as best... thanks very much, I guess it's off to the ER for me (although I did ease mysef in with a few rounds of Dark Cut and Amateur Surgeon - thanks jefftang). I'm going to finish my day in a few hours with a quick scan of the videos that mpls2 linked to.

@transporter accident amy, I'm marking you as best because the idea that skimming through the answers here made you woozy made me feel so good about myself!!

Thanks for all the tips, my legs are crossed, muscles tense, coke and cold water are to hand and I'm about to start exposing myself... (to more gore).

posted by gwpcasey at 11:39 AM on April 6, 2009

Taking a Red Cross first aid class is one of the best things you can do to become more confident in a crisis.
posted by aquafortis at 12:01 PM on April 6, 2009

I used to have this problem too.
Someone told me to think of the body in terms of being a machine. Blood is the lubricant, the heart is the engine, etc. This helped me out a lot as far as reading or hearing about stuff like that.
I still can't give blood though.
posted by ad4pt at 12:31 PM on April 6, 2009

cooker girl: "I found that my issues with blood and guts went away when I had my first child."

Not exactly what you're talking about but it's funny, my neighbor is fine about blood unless it's her kids that get hurt... then she's a fainter.

Exposure is good, don't be afraid to start with easy stuff like watching reruns of ER on TV. No, really. I was in a high school vocational health occupations class, and the first time I ever almost fainted was watching an ep of ER where Dr. Corday (I think) was in a collapsed underground tunnel and had to do an amputation. When the guy moved and his arm stayed stuck under the rock, I nearly passed out.

After going to nursing school (although deciding it wasn't for me) I can now watch surgery and gory stuff without being bothered. Though I have given up on "torture porn" like the Saw movies.

If you're interested in seeing an autopsy, Dr. Gunther Von Hagens (the guy behind BodyWorlds) did one on TV that you can see a video of. I can't find the whole video at the moment but here's some clips. (not making that a live link on purpose.)
posted by IndigoRain at 1:00 PM on April 6, 2009

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