Does Pavlovian conditioning work here?
September 9, 2010 12:23 PM   Subscribe

How likely is the possibility that one would get past an automatic 'ick' reaction by repeated exposure?

I'm sure a lot of people have an automatic response to things. For example, flying, stinging, buzzing insects get me running away and hiding under the first available cover, roaches make me scream and jump a foot into the air...those kind of violent reactions I have no dreams about changing.

But there are lesser reactions, similar in scope but less severe. Needles make me shudder, but I've donated blood several times and gotten blood tests aplenty (I just don't look at the needle going in). Heavily pregnant women's bellies make me wince at first glance, because I see that much physical change as automatically painful, but I'm not going out of my way to avoid them. And etc.

So...these lesser reactions...what are the chances that I could/would move past them with repeated exposure?

Reason I'm asking is that I'm considering applying for further education, probably in health sciences. I'm looking at sonography and radiology and medical lab assistants and other things like that, and while intellectually they seem interesting, looks like a rewarding career possibility and all that, I don't want to go through 2 years of books and lecture and then hit a wall with a 'omg I can't do this' reaction the first time I scan a pregnant woman during the practicum.

Thoughts? Other things I should look at before I decide on applications?
posted by Hakaisha to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't specifically address the medical stuff, but I used to have that screaming and jumping reaction to spiders. HATED them with a trembling, fearful passion. Then about ten years ago we bought a house and I got into gardening. It's impossible to work in the yard without exposure to spiders, and it wasn't long before I was feeling quite tolerant, even charitable, towards them. Now I sometimes even let the little black and white jumpy ones crawl on my hands...this would have given me fits to watch someone else do, when I was younger. So yes, you can get used to anything. Good luck in your career!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 12:35 PM on September 9, 2010

I'm still uncomfortable with needles, but I did stop getting overly anxious about them by donating blood regularly. The clincher was when I asked, after I'd finished, to see the needle. God, that thing's huge ...

I'm still not OVER it, because I still get uncomfortable, but now that I have more experience with and knowledge of it, it's easier to deal with.
posted by Heretical at 12:37 PM on September 9, 2010

Well, as a person who was heavily pregnant twice I can tell you that being heavily pregnant wasn't an instantaneous occurrence. It happens over a long period of time and while it's very uncomfortable to be walking around while in the last trimester (the last month especially), it's not painful for most women. It wasn't painful for any woman I know, least of all me.

No, really. Incubating a human isn't painful. It's getting them out that hurts.
posted by cooker girl at 12:39 PM on September 9, 2010


My point is, don't assume things about people unless you ask them what it's like to be them. Maybe coming at some things from that perspective (just because I think it's painful doesn't mean it is) would help.
posted by cooker girl at 12:40 PM on September 9, 2010

My point is, don't assume things about people unless you ask them what it's like to be them.
I don't see any assumption in the OP, just an immediate, uncontrolled reaction and an observation of what might cause it.

Personally, I got over the needles thing at a young age when I got my first microscope and discovered the joys of cutting myself to see look at blood cells at 300X. I no longer saw pin pricks or needle punctures or razor cuts as pain-inducing trauma; I saw them as tools penetrating tissue.

I think the more clinically you learn to see all this, the less you'll have these reaction. If you were one of those more squeamish people who puke or pass out in these situations, you'd have more cause for worry.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:00 PM on September 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there any way you can contact someone currently in the field and ask to "job shadow" them for a few days to really see what it is you'll be up against in this particular career? Sometimes knowing more can calm your fears. I've found with health related ick things, most are necessary evils, meaning once you gain education in this area, you'll see the reasons for certain things and the knowledge allows topics to become more scientific (for lack of a better word) and less emotional.

If you want something bad enough, you'll do what it takes to get it. As with most things you have to take the good with the bad and I think that in time - if your desire for this position is strong enough, with repeated exposure, as well as more knowledge about the topic - it is very possible for you to deal with your ick factor.
posted by NoraCharles at 1:01 PM on September 9, 2010

How likely is the possibility that one would get past an automatic 'ick' reaction by repeated exposure?

Extremely likely. I used to have an absolute horror of wood lice and absolutely FREAKED THE FUCK OUT when we moved to a house with a wet garden by a sloping back door. At first one or two would come in and that was bad. Eventually every morning there would be, oh, 100. I had to get over them in order to actually deal with them, since standing in the corner screaming would accomplish nothing and certainly wasn't going to get rid of them.

Within a few days I was sitting on the stoop each morning, smashing away with a spatula, killing the lot with complete indifference. Now they don't bother me at all; I'm not a fan but we get maybe one a month in our new house (dry garden!) and I just pick it up with a tissue and flush it, no big deal.

There used to be tears. Tears, I tell you.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:13 PM on September 9, 2010

Ask anyone who's ever changed their own kids' nappies. Baby shit doesn't even register now, whereas pre-parenthood I would have recoiled.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:15 PM on September 9, 2010

Anyone who's ever worn contacts can also attest that yes, you get past the ick.

I don't think anyone is cheerful and blasé about sticking their fingers in their eyes to either drop in or scoop out a little disk of plastic. But the eye doctor puts them in for you, and eventually you have to take them out, and each day it gets a little bit easier until soon it's no trouble at all.

Personally I have avoided the medical field because I have a reaction way past "ick" for medical stuff.

For example, someone once tried to convince me of the wisdom of getting a 2-year certification as an X-Ray Technician. But I'm pretty sure the first time someone walked in with an honest-to-goodness broken bone, I'd be puking and crying and running the other way.

But if you're just squeamish, not horrified, then I think you'll probably do fine. Like i_am_joe's_spleen says, think of all the new parents!
posted by ErikaB at 1:23 PM on September 9, 2010

Repeated gradual exposure is how phobias are treated, and it works in other contexts. If you wanted to treat a fear of insects , say, you could start by looking at pictures, move on to looking at one in a box across the room and then move up through various stages to handling them.

From time spent working as a care worker I can say I got used to dealing with all manner of unpleasant bodily fluids quite rapidly (and I'm still a good guy to have around at drunken parties). It definitely helps that you can contextualize them in a professional setting -- you develop a sort of automatic, dispassionate, this-is- just-the-job-I-do mode that helps keep an appropriate distance (I found myself automatically slipping back ito this when I've had to deal with people who have vomited over themselves recently).
posted by tallus at 1:26 PM on September 9, 2010

what are the chances that I could/would move past them with repeated exposure?

Your chances of moving past them are good.

Apparently fear of blood/needles/vomit is a fairly common problem among nursing students. Here are a couple of message board discussions where people talk about their fears of various ick:
* How long does it take to get over being squeamish??
* So now I faint at blood/injury...
* Squeamish

Reading discussions by people who have dealt with your exact fear may give you some perspective about how you might respond with repeated exposure.
posted by purpleclover at 1:32 PM on September 9, 2010

Many people would answer "yes."

It may get worse before it gets better, though.
posted by rhizome at 2:22 PM on September 9, 2010

I don't see why not, you've already provided several examples of how you've become accustomed to other things to which you previously had visceral reactions.

Exposure to ick-factor things in the course of your education may help you view them in a different light. I find that being ridiculously, geekily over-educated about something helps dampen the natural EWUGHSEQUEK! reflex into more of an "ew, however Blah Blah Explanation Blah." (This is why I know more about different varieties of roaches than you can possibly imagine, and will note whether they are particularly large, small, fast, or slow for their particular variety and deliver a short lecture on their habitat and natural predators while methodically and emphatically stomping the fuckers. Unless I'm barefoot, in which case EWUGHSEQUEK!)

On the other hand, I'm actually pretty fascinated and not squeamish at all about needles, but apparently there's some part of my brain that registers a subconscious objection to injections, since I'm fine, fine, fine, totally fine...ooof, WTF, head-between-knees and yes, OJ please I'll just be a minute. But I'm not receiving any sort of injections frequently enough to know whether that reaction can be tamed.
posted by desuetude at 3:36 PM on September 9, 2010

How likely is the possibility that one would get past an automatic 'ick' reaction by repeated exposure?

Extremely likely. Nobody starts medical / nursing school imaging manual disimpaction of a grandma, but you get over it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:20 PM on September 9, 2010

When it comes to things like spiders, and cockroaches, I still have my irrational hatred of them, and when I see them in the house, I kill them (spare me. I hate them. It's my house. They die. Play patty-cake with Satan's housepets in your own place), but I used to be unable to even try. The fact that now I'm the person who has to deal with things has helped me a lot. No one else is going to take care of it for me, and that's helped me to confront them.

With needles, repeated jabbings, a couple surgeries, and a bout with what might have been MRSA leading to a tube sticking out of my shoulder for a month showed that I can get used to them. I still don't want to look at the needle when it goes in, but I don't have panic attacks about them anymore.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:31 PM on September 9, 2010

I remember hearing a story that it was part of the training for the Navy SEALS that you had to get over a major personal fear, and they did that by overexposing you to it - so if you were afraid of rats, they'd put you in a room full of rats for 24 hours, or whatever. No idea if that actually pertains to a branch of US military, but the method is well known.

I think the problem is with things that actually hurt, like stinging insects or needles, it's harder to condition yourself not to mind, because it's still not pleasant each time. You can get used to it only to a certain degree. Whereas getting used to non-biting spiders, non-poisonous rats, or pregnant bellies, seems like it should be easier.
posted by mdn at 6:42 PM on September 9, 2010

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