Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

I have an intense fear of blood. Could it be OCD?

By Stacy Quick, LPC

May 20, 20248 minute read

Reviewed byPatrick McGrath, PhD

Do you avoid getting blood drawn at all costs—or feel queasy and uptight whenever you’re forced to do it? Does the thought of going into hospital rooms put knots in your stomach, for fear of what you might see? If you get a scrape, do you have to ask someone else to put a bandage on it?

If any of the above are true for you, or you just feel anxious about blood in general, you’re in good company. Blood is often a sign of wounds and, in some cases, it can spread serious diseases. But for some people, a fear of blood feels so strong, so overwhelming, that it can get in the way of their lives, shrink their social world, and cause intense health anxiety

This can happen for a number of reasons, such as hemophobia and OCD (specifically contamination OCD or harm OCD). As a therapist at NOCD, I’ve seen this fear show up in the people I work with. It can be devastating, but people who suffer from phobias or OCD can learn to conquer their fears, no matter how strong they may be. Let’s take a look at what an intense fear of blood can look like, how it can impact your life, and how you can learn to overcome it with the help of a trained professional.

Terrified of blood? Our therapists can help you manage your fear, whether it’s hemophobia or OCD. Book a free call to get started.

What could a fear of blood mean?

Your fear of blood can be just that—a fear, and nothing more. This fear is very common, and it may have a biological basis. Seeing blood often means something is wrong or someone’s in danger—for example, it could be from a sickness, accident, or act of violence. So it makes sense that many people are disgusted by or afraid of blood.

That said, your fear of blood can make it hard to get medical care you need, such as blood tests or vaccines. If your fear of blood is severe and disrupts your life and overall functioning, it can be a sign of a mental health condition such as hemophobia or OCD. 

What is hemophobia?

“Hemophobia is the term for the irrational fear of blood. It falls under the category of ‘specific phobia’ with the added specifier of blood-injection-injury (BII) phobia in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” explains Tracie Zinman-Ibrahim, LMFT, CST. “It also involves a fear of procedures that cause blood to appear, such as getting labs drawn or getting a shot. It causes anxiety symptoms and makes people want to avoid thinking about or experiencing anything related to blood.”

[Hemophobia] causes anxiety symptoms and makes people want to avoid thinking about or experiencing anything related to blood.

Medical procedures that may cause blood can be a nightmare for people with this phobia, but that’s not all there is to it. If you have this phobia, you may experience a range of specific symptoms:

  • Excessive fear and anxiety: This anxiety typically happens as soon as you see blood. While it’s normal to feel queasy around blood, the anxiety of someone with hemophobia is far more intense than the average person’s.
  • Fainting: A key feature of this phobia is feeling disgusted when you see blood. In fact, many people with this phobia feel so disgusted or anxious that they faint. This happens after a drop in blood pressure, which some research suggests happens to 80% of people with this phobia.
  • Avoidance: You’ll probably avoid blood whenever possible. Perhaps you’ll stay away from news or television reports about disasters or trauma, avoid contact with sick people, or avoid getting pregnant since childbirth is bloody. Avoidance can become dangerous or even life-threatening, since you might avoid hospitals or refuse essential medical procedures like blood transfusion and urgent surgeries.

Nobody knows exactly what causes hemophobia, but a number of factors may play a role:

  • Genetics: Not only is your blood group passed down by your parents, but your fear of blood might be, too. “People with a genetic predisposition to anxiety or phobias may be more likely to develop a phobia of some kind,” says Zinman-Ibrahim.
  • Stressful or traumatic events: This can be trauma you’ve experienced personally, or vicariously by witnessing it or hearing about it.
  • Your upbringing: Seeing a parent be terrified of blood may teach you that blood is threatening, causing you to develop hemophobia, as well.

Gender may also contribute. The stats vary, but a 2014 study found that more than twice as many women as men suffer from hemophobia. 

Could it be OCD?

It might not occur to you that your fear of blood could come from OCD, but it’s less surprising than you might think. OCD can take on many different forms, far from the symptoms most people associate with the condition. Keep in mind, though, OCD has a unique presentation compared to hemophobia and other possible causes of fear of blood.

Wondering how to tell the difference between OCD and phobias? The key difference is that OCD involves two primary types of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. “Hemophobia makes people want to avoid thinking about or experiencing anything related to blood, whereas with OCD there are compulsions done in response to real blood, situations that might involve blood, thoughts of blood, and perhaps a fear of contamination or harm in general,” says Zinman-Ibrahim. 

Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, images, or feelings that cause intense anxiety or distress, often in particular situations. For example, you might be preoccupied with the possibility that you’ll see blood and have a panic attack when you enter a health clinic.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors—whether mental or physical—that you do to try to relieve your anxiety. If you’re afraid of blood, compulsions might include excessive cleaning of surfaces, checking your body for cuts, excessive handwashing, or avoiding places where you might contact blood.

Compulsions bring relief for a moment, but they actually make OCD worse in the long term, reinforcing your fears and teaching your brain that blood is dangerous. That’s why resisting these behaviors is the key to recovery from OCD.

A fear of blood may be involved in several of OCD’s most common themes, depending on the context of the fears themselves. The most obvious is perhaps health or contamination OCD, which often revolves around fears about harmful contamination. After all, many people’s fears are rooted in concerns about injury or illness. For example, many people “are afraid of blood because of the fear of HIV/AIDS,” explains Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, who specializes in OCD. 

Fear of blood may also be involved in harm OCD. For some people, blood can trigger intrusive thoughts about self-harm, or of inadvertently spreading disease to others. You may irrationally believe that even trace amounts of blood can pose a great risk, or that intrusive thoughts of harm mean you’re a danger to your loved ones.

Regardless of subtype, OCD can make distress and uncertainty feel impossible to tolerate, so your fear of blood may lead to general discomfort and disgust, similar to hemophobia. “With OCD, it often feels like you can’t handle that ‘icky’ feeling,” explains licensed therapist Amalia Sirica, LCSW

How can I overcome my fears about blood?

Whether from hemophobia, OCD, or something else, a fear of blood can become debilitating—but the good news is it is manageable with the right form of treatment.

One of the most effective forms of treatment for hemophobia and other phobias is also the gold standard treatment for OCD: exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. Often referred to simply as “exposure therapy,” ERP is similarly effective for both conditions, leading to  positive results in around 80% of people with OCD and 80-90% of people with phobias.

When undergoing ERP to treat phobias or OCD, you will learn effective ways to accept uncertainty or fear about blood. ERP exposes you in a manner to the thoughts and situations that trigger your fears in a gradual, intentional manner. You’ll start with fears that bring only a small amount of distress, and build up to bigger fears as you build confidence. By doing this continually over time, you learn that you are able to tolerate anxiety, uncertainty, and discomfort. Ultimately, you can find freedom from the OCD cycle. 

Other treatments can also be used in conjunction with ERP. For many people with OCD, prescription medication can make ERP treatment even more effective. And for those with hemophobia, learning applied tension can provide a helpful way to respond when fears are triggered. This technique involves tensing your muscles, which raises your blood pressure, often preventing fainting.

You may also use treatments for hemophobia in conjunction with traditional OCD treatments. April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, recalls one therapy member who had a fear of both blood and needles. ERP started by simply looking at pictures and accepting the discomfort that followed, and then progressed to actually holding needles. As they progressed through ERP, they also practiced applied tension when they experienced low blood pressure and faintness. The final event was going to a blood drive at the hospital, which served as an exposure to both blood and real needles. They handled it surprisingly well, and were eventually able to go to the doctor for important medical tests.

If you want similar results, it’s crucial to seek out a clinician who specializes in OCD. That’s because some treatments that may work for other conditions can actually backfire for OCD. For example, talk therapy uses methods that can easily turn into compulsions—like fighting off your thoughts or seeking reassurance—and ultimately perpetuate the OCD cycle.

Even if your fears feel impossible to overcome, treatment can give you the tools you need to conquer your fear of blood and manage it long-term. Imagine the freedom of being able to step into hospital rooms, get the treatments you need without being overcome with distress, and be in public spaces you may have avoided. You deserve a life that isn’t ruled by fear.

Our specialists can help you manage your fears and regain control of your life. Book a free call to get started.

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