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Hemophobia (Fear of Blood) Signs and Coping Strategies

  • What Is it?

Hemophobia is a psychological disorder characterized by an extreme fear of blood . While it's normal to feel a bit queasy or uncomfortable at the sight of blood, people with hemophobia react to blood in irrational ways and can become highly distressed at the mere thought of it.

This article explains what hemophobia is and what causes it. It also covers how hemophobia is diagnosed and treated, along with ways to cope with the fear of blood.

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

What Is Hemophobia?

Hemophobia, or blood phobia, causes an irrational fear of seeing blood. This persistent fear causes those who experience hemophobia to have intense feelings of distress upon seeing blood or even thinking about it.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies blood phobia as a specific phobia . A specific phobia is an anxiety disorder that presents as a fear of a certain object or situation. The DSM-5 characterizes the fear of a specific phobia as out of proportion to the actual danger posed by a specific situation or object.

Specific phobias are divided into five categories, and blood phobia falls within the category of blood-injection-injury type. Other examples of phobias within this category are those related to seeing or experiencing an injury, or even something as simple as getting your blood drawn .

Symptoms of Hemophobia

Many people living with a blood phobia may only experience symptoms if they see blood. But for some people, even the thought of blood can make them feel panicked or anxious. This is referred to as anticipatory anxiety.

Each person with hemophobia may react to blood differently, but some of the more common symptoms are:

  • Tremors or palpitations
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Faintness or dizziness

Those with a fear of blood may be highly distressed and go out of their way to avoid situations that involve blood.

Symptoms in Children

Symptoms of hemophobia can also vary from child to child, but some of the most common include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Feeling like they are choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Fear of dying
  • Feeling numb
  • Chills or hot flashes

Additionally, a child with hemophobia may display extreme, irrational fear when faced with a situation in which blood may be present, such as going to a doctor's appointment.

Such situations may cause the child to cry, throw tantrums, or cling to their parent or caregiver.

Diagnosing Hemophobia

Hemophobia is formally diagnosed using seven criteria outlined in the DSM-5:

  • The fear is persistent and is considered unreasonable or excessive. The fear may occur in the presence of blood or in anticipation of seeing blood.
  • Seeing blood nearly always results in an anxious response. This may include a panic attack. In children, the response may take the form of clinging, tantrums, crying, or freezing.
  • The person with the blood phobia knows that their fear of blood is excessive (though in children this may not be the case).
  • The person either avoids blood or experiences intense feelings of anxiety and is distressed in situations that involve blood.
  • The fear of blood significantly disrupts the person's daily life and may impact their work, schooling, relationships, or social activities. They may have significant distress about having their phobia of blood.
  • The fear of blood typically persists for at least six months.
  • The feelings of anxiety or behaviors associated with the blood phobia can't be explained through other disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder , social phobia , panic disorder , and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) .

Not everyone with a blood phobia is formally diagnosed. Many people with blood phobia are already aware they have a phobia and may choose to live their life without a diagnosis. These people may also go to great lengths to avoid blood or situations that involve blood.

This approach is not advised, as avoidance of blood may make a blood phobia worse.

The cause of specific phobias like hemophobia are often complex and may be due to a variety of reasons like past experiences, learned history, and biological factors.

Past Experiences

Some people may develop a phobia of blood after a past traumatic experience. A car accident, for instance, can equate negative emotions with the sight of blood, and may lead to an irrational fear of blood.

Learned History

A learned history can be one factor that contributes to the development of a blood phobia. There are three forms of learned history:

  • A direct learning experience refers to a specific experience that involves blood. This experience might have been traumatic.
  • An observational learning experience refers to learning a fear by observing other people show fear in a situation that involves blood. This may involve a child seeing their parent be afraid of blood, then developing their own fear of blood.
  • Informational learning refers to a fear that might come from reading or hearing about a situation that could be considered dangerous.

Often, learned history is not the sole reason for developing a phobia. Other factors like genetics and overall mental health can play a role in phobia development.

Biological Factors

There may be a genetic component to developing a specific phobia, as it is believed that some people are born with a predisposition to feelings of anxiety compared to others.

If a person with hemophobia sees blood, they may experience a number of biological changes in the body:

  • Release of cortisol , a primary stress hormone
  • Release of insulin , a hormone produced in the pancreas that turns glucose to energy
  • Release of growth hormones, which help give your body energy as part of its response to stress
  • Changes to the activity in the brain
  • Increased blood pressure

Many phobias can be treated or potentially cured. Specific phobias like hemophobia can be treated through desensitization or exposure therapy .

This involves a person with a phobia of blood gradually being exposed to blood or situations that involve being around blood. These exposure techniques can be performed with the help of a professional.

Other treatment options include psychotherapy , counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy .

Typically, medication is not used to treat phobias. In some cases, it may be prescribed to help with anxiety. Medications that may be prescribed in this context include beta-blockers , benzodiazepines, and antidepressants.

Coping With Hemophobia

Having a blood phobia can be distressing, but there are techniques that can help you cope with this fear.

Distraction Techniques

Distraction techniques involve focusing on something else or performing an activity to distract from a situation that may involve blood or the thought of blood.

You may be able to distract yourself by:

  • Listening to music
  • Playing games
  • Arts and crafts, like painting or embroidery
  • Walking or going on a bike ride
  • Meeting up with a friend

Visualizing a situation that evokes feelings of calm may be beneficial for those with hemophobia. Creating a calm image in the brain and thinking about how it felt to be in that situation can reduce feelings of anxiety.

Challenge Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts associated with a specific phobia can bring on symptoms of anxiety. By challenging these negative thoughts, those with hemophobia may better cope with their fears.

For instance, if you have hemophobia and think you can't cope with having your blood drawn, you may challenge this thought by reminding yourself that a blood test is a normal procedure that many other people experience regularly without issue.

Relaxation Techniques

When a person with hemophobia thinks about blood or is in a situation involving blood, they may notice their body tenses up and their heart rate increases.

Using relaxation techniques like muscle relaxation, meditation, and deep breathing may help reduce feelings of anxiety.

The exact cause of hemophobia may be hard to pinpoint, but there are steps a person can take to reduce their fear of blood. Gradual exposure to blood or situations that involve blood may help a person desensitize their irrational fear.

Those with a blood phobia can also benefit from mindfulness exercises that may improve mental health overall, such as exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, and attending therapy.

American Psychological Association. Blood phobia.

American Psychological Association. Specific phobia.

SAMHSA. Anxiety disorders .

Perelman School of Medicine. Specific phobias.

Cincinnati Children's. What are phobias? .

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 changes on the national survey on drug use and health .

Barlett A, Singh R, Hunter R. Anxiety and epigenetics . Adv Exp Med Biol . 2017;978(1):145-166. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-53889-1_8

National Institute of Mental Health. Mental health medications .

Harvard Health Publishing. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response .

By Elizabeth Pratt Pratt is a freelance medical and mental health journalist with a master's degree in health communication.

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Understanding and Overcoming the Fear of Blood

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

essay on fear of blood

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Hemophobia (also called hematophobia) is the fear of blood, wounds, and injuries. Hemophobia is categorized by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a “blood-injection-injury” (BII) phobia. This subtype, which also includes trypanophobia or fear of needles can cause symptoms that are not frequently seen in other types of specific phobias .

Having an aversion to blood is natural—in fact, horror movies often prey on our discomfort by showing large quantities of fake blood to inspire fear and unease in their audience. However, hemophobia causes much more than discomfort, and someone with this condition will experience highly distressing and disruptive symptoms at the sight of blood.

This article explores the symptoms, diagnosis, and causes of hemophobia. It also covers the treatments and coping strategies that can be helpful.

Symptoms of Hemophobia

Hemophobia can cause physical symptoms like:

  • Increased heart rate initially, followed by a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure
  • Nausea and gastrointestinal upset
  • Rapid breathing

It can also cause emotional symptoms, including:

  • Anticipatory anxiety ahead of medical procedures
  • Extreme fear and anxiety at the sight or thought of blood
  • Feeling of intense disgust at the sight of blood
  • Panic attacks
  • Persistent avoidance of medical procedures that might involve the sight of blood
  • Problems functioning in other areas of your life

Children can also show signs of hemophobia by clinging, crying, freezing, and throwing tantrums as a response to their fear of blood.

While most types of phobia lead to an increase in cardiac activity, BII phobias such as hemophobia can cause an abrupt and sometimes dangerous reduction in blood pressure and heart rate. This sudden drop can lead to fainting at the sight of blood, which is relatively common for people with hemophobia.

Rarely, an extreme reaction to the sight of blood could lead to cardiac arrest and even death. If you or a loved one is experiencing serious cardiac symptoms after the sight of blood, call 911 or seek help immediately.

For help dealing with hemophobia, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 .

Diagnosis of Hemophobia

When diagnosing a phobia , your doctor will look for signs that show your fear of blood is extreme, has lasted for at least six months, and causes significant problems in other areas of your life.

Your doctor will also check to see if you have symptoms of a related phobia, like the fear of hospitals ( nosocomephobia ) or needles ( trypanophobia ), or if you show signs of a common comorbid condition, like:

  • Agoraphobia
  • Animal-based phobia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD)

To diagnose hemophobia, your healthcare provider will ask question about your symptoms, their severity, and how long they have lasted. They will also ask questions about how these symptoms affect your life and may evaluate you to determine if your symptoms might be caused by another mental health condition.

Causes of Hemophobia

Hemophobia affects around 3% to 4% of people. While it's hard to determine an exact cause, BII phobias may have a genetic component. Many people with this type of fear have multiple family members with the same condition. It's also possible to have developed this phobia during childhood if a caregiver or another adult showed extreme discomfort around blood.

Hemophobia can also be related to trauma. If you have experienced or witnessed a severe injury involving significant blood loss, you may develop a phobia.

Your phobia may also be rooted in another underlying fear, like:

  • Dentophobia , or fear of dentists
  • Iatrophobia , or fear of doctors
  • Illness anxiety disorder , or fear of severe health conditions
  • Mysophobia , or fear of germs
  • Nosophobia , or fear of a specific disease

In some cases, the fear of blood may be related to a fear of loss of control or even a fear of death .

Types of Hemophobia

Hemophobia symptoms can occur in a variety of situations; you don't necessarily need to be in sight of blood to experience discomfort and anxiety. While phobias may begin as a fear of a specific stimulus, they can become generalized over time.

That means you may experience symptoms by encountering fake blood in images, movies, television shows, or video games.

Impact of Hemophobia

Hemophobia can cause a wide range of difficulties that may prove life-limiting or even dangerous. If you are afraid of blood, you may be reluctant to seek medical treatment. You might postpone or avoid annual physicals and needed medical tests. You may refuse surgery or dental treatments.

Parents with hemophobia may find it difficult or impossible to bandage their children’s wounds. You might pass these tasks off to your spouse whenever possible. You may also overreact to minor injuries in your children as well as yourself, frequenting emergency rooms or walk-in clinics when home treatment would suffice.

A fear of blood may also cause you to limit activities that carry a risk of injury. You might be unable to participate in outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, or running. You may avoid sports, carnival rides, and other activities that you perceive as dangerous.

Over time, such avoidant behaviors can lead to isolation. You might develop a social phobia or, in extreme cases, agoraphobia . Your relationships might suffer, and you might find it difficult to participate in even the normal activities of daily living. Feeling depressed is not unusual.

A fear of blood can have a limiting impact on your life. You might avoid any situation that could lead to injury or exposure to the sight of blood. As a result, normal daily activities may be severely impaired, which can affect relationships and contribute to loneliness and social isolation.

Treatment for Hemophobia

Hemophobia responds very well to many treatment methods. Therapy is generally the first-line treatment option, and medication may also prove helpful.

If your phobia is severe, medications like antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs may help. These may be prescribed to control the anxiety and allow you to focus on your treatment, or they may be useful in situations where you have to undergo a medical procedure or otherwise face your fear of blood.


One of the most common psychotherapy options for phobias is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) . In CBT, you learn to replace your fearful self-talk with healthier responses to the sight of blood. You also learn new behaviors and coping strategies.

Your therapist may also try exposure therapy , where you are gradually exposed to things that trigger your fear. In exposure therapy, your therapist provides you with guidance and a safe environment to help you learn how to calm yourself down at the sight of blood.

Other forms of talk therapy, hypnosis , and even alternative treatments may also be helpful.

A skilled therapist can guide you through the process of recovery, which can be difficult or impossible on your own. With help, though, there is no reason for hemophobia to control your life.

Coping With Hemophobia

You can learn to manage your hemophobia , and seeking professional treatment is an important part of that process.

Taking other steps can also help, like:

  • Learning more about your condition and understanding what triggers your fear
  • Incorporating stress-management techniques into your daily routine
  • Leaning on friends and family for support

If you experience fainting at the sight of blood, familiarizing yourself with the symptoms that typically precede a fainting spell may help you reduce your chance of injury. If you feel faint, try to:

  • Get to a safe area to prevent a fall
  • Practice breathing exercises to combat any hyperventilation
  • Tense the muscles in your arms, legs, and core to try to prevent yourself from fainting

In addition to seeking professional treatment, there are self-help strategies that can help you cope with a fear of blood. Understanding the condition and practicing relaxation strategies can be helpful. Knowing how to respond when you find yourself feeling faint upon the sight of blood may help you avoid injury due to a fall.

While it is natural to feel uncomfortable at the sight of blood, if your fear is keeping you from undergoing regular medical check-ups and necessary procedures, it may be time to consult with a mental healthcare professional who understands how to treat phobias. Treatment can alleviate the anxiety associated with hemophobia and help you recover from your symptoms.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed . Washington, DC; 2013. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

Wani AL, Ara A, Bhat SA. Blood injury and injection phobia: The neglected one . Behav Neurol . 2014;2014:471340. doi:10.1155/2014/471340

Samra CK, Abdijadid S. Specific phobia . In: StatPearls . StatPearls Publishing; 2021.

Pan Y, Cai W, Cheng Q, Dong W, An T, Yan J. Association between anxiety and hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies . Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat . 2015;11:1121-30. doi:10.2147/NDT.S77710

Wani A, Bhat S, Ara A. Persistence and inheritance of blood injury and injection phobia . Gulhane Med J . 2016;58:67-73. doi:10.5455/gulhane.172838

Singh J, Singh J. Treatment options for the specific phobias . Int J Basic Clin Pharmacol . 2016;5(3):593-598. doi:10.18203/2319-2003.ijbcp20161496

Pitkin MR, Malouff JM. Self-arranged exposure for overcoming blood-injection-injury phobia: a case study . Health Psychol Behav Med . 2014;2(1):665-669.

Spiegel SB. Current issues in the treatment of specific phobia: recommendations for innovative applications of hypnosis . Am J Clin Hypn . 2014;56(4):389-404. doi:10.1080/00029157.2013.801009

Ritz T, Meuret AE, Ayala ES. The psychophysiology of blood-injection-injury phobia: Looking beyond the diphasic response paradigm . Int J Psychophysiol . 2010;78(1):50-67. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2010.05.007

By Lisa Fritscher Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.

An Overview of Hemophobia: Symptoms, Risk Factors, and Treatment

Hemophobia symptoms and treatment

  • Updated: 04.19.2024

Rabia Khaliq

Dr. william grigg.

Phobia is a disorder characterized by an extreme, persistent, and irrational fear of specific objects or situations. Generally, hemophobia is the fear of blood. However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) categorizes it as blood-injection-injury (BBI) phobia [1*] .

According to the National Institute of Health [2*] , the disorder is prevalent since it affects about 3% to 4% of the general population. Read on to learn more about its symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Symptoms of Hemophobia

In people afraid of blood the sight or thoughts of blood cause distress or anxiety . Moreover, the condition can interfere with a patient’s life. For instance, one may skip a doctor’s appointment to avoid taking a blood test. Symptoms of hemophobia are evident if the affected individual sees blood, and these reactions can be emotional or physical.

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feeling unreal and detached from self.
  • Extreme anxiety.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Feeling as if one could die or pass out.
  • A powerless and helpless feeling.
  • An unsettling feeling in the stomach.
  • Desire to escape or disappear from a scene that has blood.

Physical Signs

  • An increase in heart rate .
  • Chest tightness or pain .
  • Cold or hot flashes.
  • Difficulty breathing .
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness .
  • Excessive sweating.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Trembling or shaking.
  • A feeling of weakness.

Diagnosis of Hemophobia

The phobia of seeing blood is a mental health disorder, and its diagnosis involves a psychological evaluation by a mental health practitioner. To make a formal diagnosis, the doctor uses the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:

  • An excessive, persistent, irrational fear of seeing blood.
  • The fear of blood persists for at least six months from the first experience.
  • Anxiety or panic attacks as a response to the sight of blood.
  • The extreme fear of blood is disproportionate to the actual danger it poses.
  • Someone actively tries to avoid the sight of blood and has intense distress or anxiety when seeing it.
  • The fear of blood interferes with a person’s daily routines.
  • The patient’s irrational reactions to blood differ from the symptoms of other disorders, such as panic disorder , social phobia , obsessive-compulsive disorder , or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Main Causes and Risk Factors for Blood Phobia

The exact cause of hemophobia is not clear. However, it has been established that anxiety disorders such as hemophobia can be hereditary [3*] . In some cases, the disorder is a result of direct traumatic experiences or hearing a narration of a frightening event. It is also possible to acquire the condition by witnessing a blood-associated event.

Aside from genetics and traumatic experiences, a few more factors may be an underlying cause of hemophobia. These factors include:

  • Caregiver’s Anxiety. If a caregiver usually gets anxious at the sight of blood, the minor in his/her care may develop similar fears. Eventually, the fear may evolve into a phobia.
  • Learned Behavior: Hemophobia can develop after witnessing others’ fear or discomfort around blood, particularly in early years.
  • Cultural Factors: Hemophobia can also arise due to cultural beliefs and societal conventions surrounding blood and disease.

Risk Factors

  • Age: Although it may appear at any age, hemophobia typically starts in childhood or adolescence and can persist into adulthood.
  • Gender. Research [4*] indicates that women are more likely to have specific phobias than men. For instance, statistics show that the occurrence of blood-injury [5*] phobia is approximately 2.2% among males and 3.9% among females.
  • Personality Traits: Hemophobia may be more likely to develop in people who are more sensitive, nervous, or prone to anxiety disorders.
  • Other Phobias or Anxiety Disorders: Individuals who have other phobias or anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or particular phobia, may be at a higher risk of acquiring hemophobia.
  • Medical Problems: Fear of blood can be made worse by some medical issues, such as anemia or low blood pressure, which can result in fainting or dizziness.

Types of Hemophobia

Hemophobia symptoms can manifest in many different ways; only seeing blood is not a single and absolute cause for experiencing anxiety and fear. Phobias can start as a fear of a particular stimulus but can become generalized with time.

Such stimuli can include:

  • Visual Triggers: Seeing blood, whether on film, in pictures, or in real life.
  • Invasive Procedure: Medical procedures involving needles, injections, or blood draws.
  • Fear of Injury: Fear of one’s blood or the blood of others, especially after accidents or injuries.
  • Medical Condition: Fear of blood resulting from trauma or another underlying medical condition.
  • Generalized: A widespread, all-encompassing anxiety about blood that may not have a single source but makes people anxious in various blood-related circumstances.

Impact of Hemophobia

Hemophobia can have varying effects on individuals. The effects depend on the severity of the fear and how it manifests in their lives. It can make everyday tasks such as going to the doctor, participating in certain sports or hobbies, or pursuing a career in emergency services or healthcare more challenging.

Furthermore, a persistent fear of blood can result in ongoing anxiety and stress. This, consequently, can negatively affect one’s mental health and overall general well-being. Blood-related situations or blood itself may cause sweating, dizziness, fast heartbeat, and fainting.

Overall, hemophobia can adversely impact an individual’s quality of life by impairing their ability to handle daily tasks, build relationships, and maintain emotional stability.

Treatment and Management of Hemophobia

Psychotherapy is the most common treatment for hemophobia. In severe cases, a doctor may also recommend medication as a part of a comprehensive plan. Therapeutic interventions usually used to overcome the fear of blood are discussed below.

Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT [6*] helps patients understand and confront their irrational fear of blood. Negative thoughts and beliefs can worsen anxiety and phobias, so CBT helps in questioning the validity of these thoughts and replacing them with rational ones.

Exposure Therapy

In exposure therapy, the patient is gradually and systematically exposed to experiences that involve blood. This continues until he/she develops a coping mechanism to get over fear of blood. 

Relaxation Techniques

Different relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises are very beneficial for treating anxiety and phobias. You can use these techniques to release physical tension, diffuse stress, and manage the fear of blood.

Applied Tension

The Applied Tension technique [7*] is helpful for patients who faint at the sight of blood. In the technique, a person tenses his/her muscles for timed intervals. The exercise happens concurrently with the exposure to the trigger. The tension helps the patient to watch a scene with blood without fainting.

Distraction Techniques

Distraction can help reduce fear and anxiety by redirecting attention towards something neutral or positive. Some techniques for distraction include counting or noticing all the objects with specific characteristics in the surroundings.

Imagery involves using mental images or visualizations to create a sense of calm and relaxation. Two effective imagery techniques for overcoming the fear of blood are:

  • safe place visualization such as a beach or a cozy room,
  • positive outcome visualization where an individual successfully copes with a situation involving blood without experiencing overwhelming fear.

These exercises can help one feel more prepared and less anxious when faced with a real situation.


When it comes to medications prescribed for hemophobia, the doctor may prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a well-known class of antidepressants commonly used to treat anxiety disorders.

Hemophobia is a distressful disorder that can interfere with a person’s daily tasks and routines. The fear of blood can cause difficulties during medical appointments, avoidance behaviors, and other challenges.

People with hemophobia symptoms should seek professional help to be able to have a productive life. If you notice any warning symptoms and want to manage them, healthcare providers at MEDvidi are here to help.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is blood phobia rare.

Hemophobia (the fear of blood) is quite common. It affects about 3% to 4% of the population. However, the exact number of people affected by a phobia of blood may vary, and there can be differences in the severity of symptoms and their impact on day-to-day functioning.

Is it normal to be scared of blood?

It’s common for people to experience some degree of uneasiness or fear when they come into contact with blood, particularly if they have had unpleasant experiences that link blood to harm or danger.

While some sort of anxiety or discomfort around blood is normal, it becomes problematic when it causes significant distress or seriously impairs day-to-day functioning.

Is hemophobia curable?

Like other specific phobias, hemophobia can be treated, yet the term “cure” may not be the most appropriate way to describe the outcome of the treatment. Many people with a fear of blood can learn to control their fear and have happy lives with the right help and support.

  • The psychophysiology of blood-injection-injury phobia: Looking beyond the diphasic response paradigm Source link
  • Blood Injury and Injection Phobia: The Neglected One Source link
  • The Genetic and Environmental Structure of Fear and Anxiety in Juvenile Twins Source link
  • Gender and age differences in the prevalence of specific fears and phobias Source link
  • Blood-injury phobia Source link
  • A comprehensive group-based cognitive behavioural treatment for blood-injection-injury phobia Source link
  • A specific behavioral method for treatment of blood phobia Source link

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Evidence Based

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by experts.

Our team of experts strive to be objective, unbiased, honest and to present both sides of the argument.

This article contains scientific references. The numbers in the parentheses (1, 2, 3) are clickable links to peer-reviewed scientific papers.

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essay on fear of blood

“The Blood Battle”: Using science to combat the fear of blood

Kayla Peña Providence, Rhode Island

essay on fear of blood

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Marcy Copeland/Released. Public domain.

Forty years ago, the University of Michigan and Ohio State University competed in their first “Blood Battle.” Although typically known for their football rivalry, in 1982 the universities decided to expand their competition to see which school could donate more blood. 1 Now every November, the students volunteer their veins to help fill donation tubes for the American Red Cross. For every bloodthirsty college student eager to win the competition, there is always at least one pupil who falls victim to the involuntary syncope, anxiety, or even panic attack that accompanies drawing one’s blood.

For years, scientists have tried to understand why individuals have different reactions to blood. While most of the “Blood Battle” participants are unfazed by the sight of blood, 30% of them are expected to faint. 2 These students are also more likely to experience panic attacks and become more susceptible to acquiring Blood-Injection-Injury (BII) phobias. A natural uneasiness towards blood becomes a disability when patients begin to refuse vital medical procedures, thus making this condition an important topic. 3 When it comes to blood, the competitive college students in the Midwest may help provide an example of why individuals have such different reactions. Understanding the physiology behind vasovagal syncope, the neuroscience underlying fear, and the genetic underpinning of BII phobias will help answer why blood is so distressing to some, while maybe even thrilling to others.

Noah, a freshman student, is terrified of blood, although he does not know it yet. He waits in line with his classmates, excited to participate in his first “Blood Battle” and contribute to the great cause. As Noah approaches the phlebotomist, he sees the needle that will be used to puncture his skin and draw his blood. His brain freezes, his heart starts racing, and before he knows it, he is on the ground, unconscious. Noah has experienced vasovagal syncope. Reflex syncope, a common cause of fainting, begins with a miscommunication between nerves and blood vessels. Specific triggers, such as fear or disgust, create an inappropriate nerve impulse, causing vessel dilation and low blood pressure. 4 This combination results in a lack of blood flow to the brain and voilà , Noah faints. All participants are essentially being exposed to the same trigger causing this reaction, however not all students participating in the “Blood Battle” will experience syncope. In attempts to explain this phenomenon, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) showed how subjectively labeling triggers, like blood draws, was an accurate predictor of vasovagal syncope. Participants who labeled their experience as “scary” or “uncomfortable” were more likely to end up like Noah, unconscious and traumatized. 5 The clear connection between one’s emotional perception of blood and firing of neurons is not entirely understood; however, scientists believe it can be attributed to the conditioning of the fear sensing areas of the brain: specifically, the amygdala.

The amygdala is called the seat of human emotion. As the body’s “security system,” it warns humans of danger by provoking fear and panic. When people like Noah see or handle blood the activity in this part of their brain significantly increases. Yet in the same way that not all the college students donating their blood will “pass out,” not all of them will experience increased activity in the amygdala. To further understand why these fear-based reactions occur only in a select few, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin sought to outline the subconscious ways humans process fear. After exposing his participants to stimuli such as blood and needles, Davidson used MRI and PET scans to demonstrate a circuit of heightened brain activity between the amygdala and a different area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The differences in both tonic activation and phasic reactivity in this circuit play a crucial role in governing different reactions to fear. 6 In other words, all individuals have neural circuitry that is wired differently, resulting in different responses to fear-evoking stimuli such as blood. This research suggests that students like Noah have negative experiences because their innate fear of blood triggers a miscommunication between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Unlike the reactive amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is known for being more “pragmatic.” The PFC is the “decision-making” area of the brain where individuals form new ideas. This area of the brain is where people like Noah label blood as a stressor. But what if these individuals, who also seem to easily faint and to have “short-circuited” neural networks, could override their labeled fear by shifting signals in their brain? Like his colleagues at UCLA, Matt Lieberman wanted to show how simply acknowledging stress was able to shift the reactivity from autonomic areas of the brain to more conscious and deliberate ones. In one study, participants who were asked to label emotions displayed on a series of images showed a clear shift from brain activity in their amygdala to their PFC. 7 Lieberman’s work suggests that deliberately labeling stress pauses the visceral reaction, allowing for a more enhancing response. These studies suggest that those with a hyperactive amygdala can consciously override their fear of blood by relabeling it as “harmless.” Researchers believe that this classification of stressors is why some may people actually enjoy seeing blood, specifically those who find gore thrilling. 8 Although it may take Noah a great deal of conscious effort, by deliberately acknowledging his stress he perhaps will be able to rewire his neural circuits and mitigate his fear of blood.

Understanding the neural networks that influence phobias is important. However, scientists offer that the root of this fear may be buried in our DNA. In the same way cancer can be inherited, familial aggregation of blood injection phobias suggests a genetic component. In 2016 doctors in rural India struggling to provide care for their “blood-phobic” patients started to question whether their fears developed over time or if they were genetically inherited. Starting by identifying the first person in a family lineage with a BII phobia (the proband), Dr. Ab Wani created pedigrees for hundreds of families residing in Aligarh, India. These ancestral records showed that around 61% of the BII phobia cases were such that those suffering had more than one or more first-degree relatives affected by the same disorder. Although similar studies have yet to be replicated in Midwestern college students, the genetic analysis in India suggests that perhaps Noah inherited a Blood-Injection-Injury phobia. Could it be that Noah was destined to fear blood? According to the research, it is not that simple. While the pedigrees in Aligarh did reveal the familial nature of blood phobias, Wani highlighted the significant imprinting effects extreme fear has on the brain. His studies suggest that the careful balance between active genes and environmental influences on neurophysiology impact the propensity towards blood phobia. 9

Unlike most medical conditions, blood phobias do not have a clear pathology. This uncertainty may help explain why some individuals are terrorized by the sight of blood, whereas others seemed unbothered or may even enjoy it. The underpinnings of blood phobias provide several theories that may help explain the spectrum of reactions towards blood. Not everyone faints at the sight of blood, but understanding the biological mechanism of vasovagal syncope may help explain how differences in physiology may cause only some to faint. In addition, while not all experience crippling anxiety during a routine blood draw, variations in neural networks provide a neuroscientific outline for the distinction. Scientists have shown this fear may be genetic, suggesting that phobias may be unavoidable.

Yet research also suggests that individuals like Noah have a degree of control over their fear towards blood. Through conscious mental practices like meditation, those suffering from blood phobias can consciously override their involuntary fears. Perhaps Noah is not destined to fall victim to his phobia after all. Perhaps he may be able to use science to overcome his fear and finally win the “Blood Battle.”

  • Slagter, Martin. “Michigan Defeats Ohio State…in Annual Blood Drive.” mlive, December 2, 2019. http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2019/12/michigan-defeats-ohio-statein-annual-blood-drive.html.
  • Kleinknecht, Ronald A., Robert M. Thorndike, and Marilyn M. Walls. “Factorial Dimensions and Correlates of Blood, Injury, Injection and Related Medical Fears: Cross Validation of the Medical Fear Survey.” Behaviour Research and Therapy 34, no. 4 (April 1996): 323–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(95)00072-0.
  • “Blood-Injury Phobia: A Review.” American Journal of Psychiatry 145, no. 10 (1988): 1207–13. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.145.10.1207.
  • “Vasovagal Syncope.” Cedars Sinai. Accessed December 4, 2019. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/v/vasovagal-syncope.html.
  • Labus, Jennifer S., et al. “Vasovagal Reactions in Volunteer Blood Donors: Analyzing the Predictive Power of the Medical Fears Survey.” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine , vol. 7, no. 1, Mar. 2000, pp. 62–72., doi:10.1207/s15327558ijbm0701_5.
  • Davidson, Richard J. “Anxiety and Affective Style: Role of Prefrontal Cortex and Amygdala.” Biological Psychiatry 51, no. 1 (2002): 68–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0006-3223(01)01328-2.
  • Lieberman, Matt D. “Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity to affective stimuli.”  Psychological Science 18 , (2007) 421-428.
  • Carmichael, Sarah Green, Martin E. P. Seligman, Alia Crum, and Thomas Crum. “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It .” Essay. In HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Mental Toughness , 71–75. Harvard Business Review Press, 2018.
  • Wani, Ab, et al. “Persistence and Inheritance of Blood Injury and Injection Phobia.” Gulhane Medical Journal , 2017, doi:10.5455/gulhane.172838.

KAYLA PEÑA , ScM, MD candidate, is a Clinical Researcher at Brown University. She is a future doctor and active inquirer.

Submitted for the 2019–2020 Blood Writing Contest

Winter 2020 

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What is Haemophobia?

Last updated on 28th April 2023

What is haemophobia

In this article

Blood makes up approximately 10% of the human body and is essential to our survival, so why is it that so many people have haemophobia – an overwhelming fear of blood?

It is estimated that a significant number of people, between two and three million , in the UK have haemophobia. Today, we are going to look at haemophobia in more detail, including the common causes, triggers and symptoms.

What is haemophobia?

Haemophobia is the extreme and irrational fear of blood. It can also include the fear of wounds and injuries. Haemophobia differs from other phobias as being exposed to your trigger often results in a vasovagal response.

This is when your body overreacts to a specific trigger, in this case, blood, and causes you to faint. In people with haemophobia, blood is a vasovagal syncope trigger and can result in a sudden drop in your heart rate and blood pressure which leads to fainting.

Haemophobia is a type of specific phobia. A specific phobia is a lasting, overwhelming and unreasonable fear of a specific object, situation, activity or person, in this case, an overwhelming fear of blood. Haemophobia has been further characterised as a blood-injection-injury (BII) phobia . Someone with a BII phobia may feel an intense and overwhelming fear when directly or indirectly exposed to blood.

A blood phobia can result in the individual avoiding any situation where they could encounter blood. They might also avoid medical treatment, GP surgeries and hospitals, even to the detriment of their health.

Having an aversion to blood or disliking blood is completely natural. Many people feel queasy or uncomfortable when they see blood and it is thought that humans are predisposed to disliking blood.

A fear of blood could have an evolutionary basis as our ancestors associated bleeding with injury, illness or death. However, a person with haemophobia doesn’t merely experience discomfort or a little anxiety when they encounter blood.

To be categorised as a phobia, the fear must be extreme and overwhelming. It must also include:

  • Feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are irrational and difficult to control or manage.
  • Fear that is out of proportion to the potential danger.
  • Your fear of blood must have lasted longer than six months.
  • The fear must negatively impact your day-to-day life.

A person who has haemophobia won’t just have a fear of blood that poses a danger to them, they will also have a physical and psychological reaction to very small amounts of blood or blood that is not their own. They may also experience feelings of anxiety and panic when thinking about blood or seeing a picture or video containing blood.

Even if you know that your fear is excessive and unreasonable, you may still be unable to control your feelings and your response.

In some cases, haemophobia can be connected to other phobias, including:

  • Thanatophobia: An extreme fear of death or dying.
  • Trypanophobia: An extreme fear of needles.
  • Nosocomephobia: An extreme fear of hospitals.
  • Latrophobia: An extreme fear of doctors or medical tests.

Man suffering with haemophobia and latrophobia

How common is haemophobia?

Haemophobia is one of the most common types of phobia. Although it can be difficult to determine true statistics of how many people experience a phobia, haemophobia is often more commonly diagnosed and treated. People with haemophobia are more likely to seek a diagnosis for their condition compared to people with other phobias. This could be because symptoms, such as the vasovagal response, are more severe than other phobias.

Approximately 3%-4% of the population have haemophobia or another blood-injection-injury (BII) phobia. This equates to between two million and three million people in the UK.

Negative feelings and reactions to blood are common and can occur on a spectrum, ranging from low levels of fear, anxiety, discomfort or nausea to severe fear, panic and anxiety that can impact an individual’s ability to function in their day-to-day life or affect their overall wellbeing.

Determining who is experiencing a fear of blood and who is experiencing a true phobia can be difficult. Some people with the condition may believe that their fear is not unreasonable and out of proportion to the potential risk, resulting in them not seeking a diagnosis.

Who is at risk of haemophobia?

Although anyone can develop haemophobia, there are certain risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing the condition, including:

  • You have a history of anxiety, depression, panic attacks or another relevant mental health condition.
  • You have another condition related to haemophobia, such as thanatophobia or another BII phobia.
  • You have a close family member who also has haemophobia.
  • You have a close family member with another type of phobia.
  • You are a naturally anxious or nervous person.
  • You were exposed to the fear of blood during childhood.
  • You directly experienced or witnessed a traumatic event involving blood.

Haemophobia can develop at any age. However, the most common age for a person to develop a fear of blood does show a gender difference, with males developing the phobia at an average of nine years old and females usually developing it at seven years old.

Females are also twice as likely to be diagnosed with phobias compared to men, although it is unclear if this gender discrepancy is because women are more likely to seek a diagnosis than men.

Even if you have none of the above risk factors, you may still develop haemophobia. It is also important to note that having several of the risk factors does not mean you will definitely develop the condition. For example, just because a person has depression and has a parent with haemophobia, this does not mean they will necessarily develop haemophobia themself.

How to deal with haemophobia

Although medical treatment is available, there are certain coping strategies you can learn to help you deal with, alleviate or prevent the symptoms of haemophobia. You may think that the best way to deal with your phobia of blood is to avoid situations where you might encounter blood. However, this may not be the most effective long-term strategy as it can be almost impossible to avoid blood for the rest of your life.

Failure to deal with your phobia can result in more severe symptoms if you encounter blood in the future, or you may find that your phobia becomes more easily triggered.

Learning how to deal with the symptoms of your haemophobia can help you to reduce the impact of your phobia on your day-to-day life and improve your overall wellbeing. You can learn and implement effective coping strategies to reduce or alleviate your symptoms. Some of these strategies can also be implemented long term to help you manage your phobia more effectively.

Some long-term strategies and symptom management strategies you can implement include:

  • Get to know your anxiety – Figuring out exactly what triggers your haemophobia and where your fear originates can help you to understand your phobia and manage your symptoms more effectively.
  • Find out information about any medical procedures you need – Medical procedures are a major trigger for people with haemophobia. Learning about the procedure and the low risks involved can help to reduce your anxiety.
  • Implement distraction techniques – If you are in a situation where seeing blood is inevitable, implementing distraction techniques can help to reduce your physiological response to the blood. Distraction techniques could include listening to music, engaging in conversation, reading, playing a game or watching a video.
  • Challenge negative thoughts – Reassuring yourself that the risk is low and that the blood does not pose a danger to you can be beneficial.
  • Prevent the vasovagal response – If you are in a situation where you are likely to encounter blood, or you feel yourself becoming dizzy or faint, there are some steps you can take to prevent the vasovagal response. This includes lying down with your legs elevated and tensing and relaxing your hands and feet.
  • Implement visualisation techniques – Visualisation has been found to be an effective coping strategy for reducing the symptoms of phobias. When faced with your trigger, visualising a place or memory that keeps you calm or elicits positive emotions can help to alleviate your symptoms.
  • Remind yourself that the fear is irrational – Reassuring yourself that you are not in danger and that the feelings you have will pass can help you to rationalise your thoughts and calm yourself down.
  • Focus on something external – Focusing on something other than your trigger can help to keep you calm. For example, you can count the letters in a sign or focus on passing traffic.
  • Practise yoga, meditation or mindfulness – Yoga, meditation and mindfulness teach you how to control your breathing and your body’s physiological responses and can help you to feel more in control and calm. This can help to reduce the physiological and psychological responses you may have when faced with blood.
  • Implement lifestyle changes – Reducing stress in your everyday life, eating a healthier, more balanced diet, exercising regularly and ensuring you have a good sleep routine can help to reduce the symptoms of your phobia long term. All of these lifestyle factors can impact your anxiety levels, your stress levels and your feelings of depression.
  • Avoid caffeine, sugar and stimulants – If you know you could come into contact with blood, you should avoid caffeine, sugar and stimulants as these can result in an elevated heart rate and can worsen your symptoms.
  • Speak to your doctor – Informing your doctor of your phobia not only allows you to be diagnosed and receive treatment but also ensures your phobia is taken into consideration if you are receiving medical treatment in the future.
  • Seek support and guidance – You can get specialist information and support online, over the phone and face-to-face from organisations such as Mind . Speaking to professionals and other people who have experienced a phobia can be extremely beneficial.

Taking part in yoga to help with breathing

What triggers haemophobia?

Haemophobia can have different triggers for different people, depending on the initial cause of your phobia and the severity of your symptoms.

Some of the most common triggers for haemophobia are:

  • Seeing blood in real life, whether your own or someone else’s.
  • Seeing blood in a TV programme or film or in a picture.
  • Smelling something that you associate with blood, such as antiseptic.
  • Seeing something you associate with blood, such as a needle or plasters.
  • Thinking about blood.
  • Injuring yourself, even if you do not bleed.
  • Going to the doctor’s surgery or to the hospital.
  • Having a medical procedure done, even if there may be no blood involved.
  • Hearing a traumatic story that involves blood.

What are the symptoms of haemophobia?

The symptoms of haemophobia can differ from person to person. Some people may experience mild symptoms, whereas others experience severe symptoms. Some people with haemophobia also find that the severity of their symptoms varies in different situations, depending on the perceived danger, their current wellbeing and mental state and their coping strategies.

For example, your symptoms may be more severe if you cut yourself and have unexpected bleeding, compared to if you see blood on the television. It could be that not all blood triggers your haemophobia, for example, many women with haemophobia do not experience symptoms when they get their period.

The symptoms of haemophobia are often similar to the symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks. However, not every person with haemophobia will have the same symptoms.

The symptoms of haemophobia can be both physiological and psychological and can include:

Physiological Symptoms:

  • A sudden drop in heart rate.
  • A sudden drop in blood pressure.
  • Light-headedness or feeling like you are going to faint.
  • Heart palpitations or a pounding heart.
  • Breathlessness or difficulty breathing, such as hyperventilating or rapid breathing.
  • Nausea, vomiting or stomach distress.
  • Excessive sweating, hot flushes or chills.
  • A dry mouth.
  • Shaking or trembling.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Tightness in the chest or chest pains.
  • A choking sensation or feeling like you have something stuck in your throat.
  • Feeling confused or disorientated.
  • Feeling numbness or tingling in different parts of your body.
  • Unusual headaches.
  • Feeling frozen or like you are unable to move.
  • Crying, hiding or being clingy (common in children with haemophobia or other mental health difficulties).

It is thought that up to 80% of people with haemophobia experience a vasovagal response when they encounter blood. While other phobias are associated with an increase in cardiac activity, the vasovagal response associated with haemophobia can result in a sudden and sometimes dangerous reduction in cardiac activity. This makes haemophobia one of the most dangerous phobias.

In rare situations, the vasovagal response can result in cardiac arrest and death. If you are concerned that the symptoms that you or someone else with haemophobia are experiencing are serious, seek medical help immediately.

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Extreme feelings of fear and panic.
  • Overwhelming feelings of anxiety.
  • Feelings of irritability.
  • Feelings of intense disgust if you see blood.
  • Feeling detached from yourself.
  • Feeling a loss of control.
  • Feeling trapped or unable to escape.
  • Anticipatory anxiety in the lead-up to situations where you may encounter blood.
  • Difficulty sleeping in the lead-up to situations where you may encounter blood.
  • A sense of impending doom.
  • A fear of death or dying.
  • Avoiding any situation where you may encounter blood.
  • Avoiding medical procedures, such as blood tests and surgery or avoiding visiting the doctor completely.
  • An inability to control your feelings of fear, anxiety or panic.

Difficulty sleeping due to haemophobia

What causes haemophobia?

There are several reasons why a person can develop haemophobia. Multiple factors can contribute to the development of a phobia. Alternatively, your phobia may have one single cause that you can pinpoint.

The main causes of haemophobia are:

  • A negative or traumatic experience involving blood In many people, haemophobia is caused by a traumatic experience involving blood. This trauma can be direct, meaning it happened to you, or indirect, where you witness a traumatic experience happening to others. This could include a serious injury, major blood loss or a hospital stay. The negative experience could have occurred during childhood or adulthood.
  • The association between blood and pain Some people learn to associate blood with pain, and this can result in them developing haemophobia, particularly if this association happens during childhood or adolescence.
  • A learned phobia Phobias can be learned in what is known as an observational learning experience. This is more likely to happen if you are exposed to haemophobia during childhood or adolescence. The exposure can come from a close family member or friend.
  • The portrayal of blood in the media Phobias can develop because of something you have seen in the media, most commonly in a movie or a TV show. If you were exposed to blood in a negative way, such as seeing someone die from major blood loss on TV, this can result in you developing a blood phobia. Blood is also often shown to scare people, such as in horror movies. Horror movies often create feelings of fear and anxiety and experiencing these negative emotions in relation to blood can be enough to cause a phobia.
  • An information learning experience In some cases, people develop phobias because they were exposed to facts or information that scared them. For example, learning facts about how many people die from injuries or from major blood loss, or learning how quickly you can bleed out can result in a person developing haemophobia.
  • A genetic predisposition Some people are more likely to develop phobias than others because of a genetic predisposition. Although scientists are unsure which specific gene is related to phobias, the familial link suggests that some people may be more susceptible to phobias.
  • Significant stress Significant, long-term stress can result in disproportionate fear responses or an inability to manage intense situations. This could result in you developing a phobia, particularly if you are exposed to the phobia or a traumatic situation involving blood while you were already experiencing stress.

How is haemophobia diagnosed?

Haemophobia can be difficult to diagnose, as many people feel anxiety and nausea when faced with blood. Differentiating a fear from a phobia can be difficult. Because the majority of people do not like blood, a person experiencing haemophobia may not realise that their fear and anxiety are overwhelming and unreasonable and may not realise they have a phobia, meaning they will never seek a diagnosis.

Haemophobia can also be difficult to diagnose because BII phobias are often diagnosed using the criteria for specific phobias. This means that the specific characteristics of haemophobia may not be listed in the diagnostic criteria. In some cases, this can make a diagnosis more difficult.

If you think you have haemophobia, you should first visit your GP. Visiting your GP as soon as possible can help you get an earlier diagnosis. This can help you to receive treatment and learn coping strategies earlier, reducing the overall impact your phobia has on your life.

If you are unsure whether to visit your GP, consider if your fear of blood:

  • Impedes your ability to function in your everyday life.
  • Has a specific negative impact on your quality of life.
  • Causes you to avoid certain situations or places.
  • Has a negative impact on your mental health or wellbeing.

During your GP appointment, your GP will ask if you have previously experienced any anxiety disorder, panic disorders, phobias or other mental health conditions. They will likely look at your medical history and your family history and perform a physical examination. Your GP will consider any already known medical conditions you have and any medication or supplements you take, to ensure your symptoms cannot be attributed to anything else.

The next step will be for your GP to refer you to a psychologist, or another mental health professional. The psychologist will consider your symptoms against the diagnostic criteria for phobias. They will likely conduct a phobia questionnaire and a psychological evaluation. They will also look at when your symptoms began and what initially caused your symptoms.

To determine whether you are experiencing a phobia or a fear, the psychologist will ask for information about:

  • Your triggers.
  • The type of symptoms you experience.
  • The frequency and severity of your symptoms.
  • How much your phobia interferes with your everyday life.

To receive an initial diagnosis of haemophobia, your symptoms must fit in with the seven key criteria:

1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when blood is present or when it is not present, e.g. if you think about blood or see a picture of blood.

2. Exposure to blood leads to an immediate anxiety response in the majority of situations.

3. The fear is excessive and disproportionate to the threat, and this is recognised by the individual.

4. The individual avoids places or situations where they could encounter blood. If they encounter blood, the individual will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.

5. The anticipation of encountering blood and the avoidance behaviours they may implement can have a significant impact on the individual’s day-to-day life.

6. The fear has lasted for a minimum of six months.

7. The phobia is not associated with another disorder or mental health condition.

If your symptoms fit the criteria, a diagnosis of haemophobia will be made and you may be offered relevant treatment.

Exposure therapy

How is haemophobia treated?

Treatments for haemophobia can vary depending on the severity of your symptoms and how significantly the phobia impacts your life and your overall health and wellbeing. Some people may not require treatment for their phobia. However, if your fear of blood negatively impacts your day-to-day life or impacts your wellbeing, then treatment could be beneficial.

There are several different types of treatment available. Your doctor will create a treatment plan based on the severity of your phobia, your triggers, and the impact your phobia is having on your life.

The most common treatments for haemophobia are:

Exposure Therapy:

Exposure therapy, also known as systematic desensitisation, has been found to be an effective treatment for people with blood phobias. It involves you being exposed to blood in a safe and controlled environment. Exposure will be gradual and repeated.

It may first begin with talking about blood and imagining blood, before looking at pictures and videos. You may then use Virtual Reality (VR) before being exposed to real blood or your other triggers in real life. Exposure therapy can help to alter your physiological and psychological responses to blood and help you deal with any negative thoughts and feelings you have about blood.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy helps you to manage your phobia by gradually changing your thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours. CBT focuses on the root cause of your phobia and any negative patterns of thought. It can also help to teach you coping strategies that you can utilise when faced with blood in the future.

CBT sessions will include:

  • Discussing your triggers and symptoms.
  • Exploring what caused your haemophobia.
  • Exploring your fears in more detail.
  • Learning how to recognise your negative thoughts and change the way you are thinking.
  • Learning coping strategies.
  • Learning calming strategies.

CBT sessions can be done individually or as a group session.

Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT)

REBT is a type of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy that is used less frequently but can be equally as effective. REBT helps you to identify irrational and negative thoughts and unhealthy attitudes, emotions and behaviours. REBT is an action-oriented approach that helps you challenge irrational beliefs and manage the thoughts, emotions and behaviours that occur when faced with blood.


Hypnotherapy is a popular treatment option for people with phobias. Hypnotherapy uses guided relaxation techniques and focused attention to help you to identify the underlying causes of your phobia and help you change your thoughts and feelings.

You will be put into a relaxed, hypnotic state and then a combination of techniques will be used to re-pattern your thoughts and memories related to blood. Hypnotherapy can also teach you deep breathing and relaxation techniques. This can help you to reduce your phobic response.

Medication is a less frequent treatment choice for people with phobias. It is only likely to be recommended if your symptoms are particularly severe, or if you also experience anxiety , panic attacks or depression. Medication will likely be given alongside another type of treatment, such as CBT.

Medication that may be used to treat haemophobia includes:

  • Anxiety medication.
  • Beta-blockers.
  • Antidepressants.

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.

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Fear Of Blood: Everything You Need To Know About Hemophobia

Farzeen Mubarak

Are you someone who feels uneasy or anxious at the mere sight of blood? You’re not alone! Hemophobia, while it might sound like a mouthful, is simply the fear of blood. Picture this: a remarkable and capable individual, just like you, who, when faced with blood, experiences an overwhelming sensation of discomfort.

But fear not! Understanding hemophobia and its quirks is the first step toward managing this common yet intriguing phobia. So, let’s delve into the fascinating world of hemophobia, unravel its mysteries, and discover ways to navigate it confidently and easily.

Fear of Blood (Hemophobia/Blood Phobia)

Hemophobia is a specific phobia characterized by an intense and irrational fear of blood. People with hemophobia may experience severe anxiety or panic attacks when confronted with blood, whether it’s their own, someone else’s, or even just the sight of blood in general. This fear can be quite distressing and may interfere with daily life, causing avoidance of situations involving blood or medical procedures.

Why Some People Fear Blood?

The fear of blood, known as hemophobia, can stem from various factors. For some, it might be an instinctual response to the fear of injury or illness. Others may develop it due to a negative or traumatic experience involving blood, such as witnessing a serious accident or undergoing a distressing medical procedure.

Sometimes, cultural or societal influences can also play a role. The sight of blood might be associated with danger or vulnerability, triggering a fear response. Our brains are complex, and fears can develop for many reasons, often without a clear cause. Understanding the origins of this fear can be an essential step in overcoming it and finding ways to cope.

How is Fear of Blood Diagnosed

Diagnosis for the fear of blood, or hemophobia, typically involves a comprehensive assessment by a mental health professional. The process may include:

  • Clinical Interview: A therapist or psychologist will conduct a detailed interview to understand the individual’s symptoms, fears, and the impact of the fear of blood on their life.
  • Diagnostic Criteria: The mental health professional will use the criteria outlined in diagnostic manuals (such as the DSM-5 – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to determine if the fear meets the criteria for specific phobias, like hemophobia.
  • Assessment Tools: Psychological assessments or questionnaires might be used to evaluate the severity of the fear and its effects on daily functioning.
  • Medical Evaluation: Sometimes, a medical evaluation might be recommended to rule out any underlying medical conditions that could contribute to the fear response, although hemophobia is primarily a psychological issue.

Exploration of Triggers: Understanding the specific situations, thoughts, or images related to blood that trigger fear and anxiety is crucial in diagnosing hemophobia.

Blood Phobia Symptoms

Some of the symptoms of fear of blood are as follows

These symptoms can vary in intensity from person to person and may occur immediately upon exposure to blood or even at the mere anticipation of encountering it.

Overcoming Fear of Blood (Blood Phobia)

Treating blood phobia, or hemophobia, typically involves therapeutic approaches aimed at reducing anxiety and gradually desensitizing individuals to the fear of blood.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) : Therapy isn’t just about lying on a couch and talking about your childhood (though that can be part of it, too!). It’s about learning how to rewire those brain circuits to react differently to the sight of blood. This therapy helps identify and challenge irrational thoughts or beliefs about blood. Techniques like gradual exposure to blood-related stimuli in a controlled and supportive environment can help reduce anxiety.

  • Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy might sound intimidating, but it’s like dipping your toes in the water before you take the plunge – slowly getting used to the sight of blood in a safe and controlled way. Gradual exposure to blood-related situations or images, starting with less anxiety-provoking scenarios and progressing to more challenging ones, can help desensitize individuals to their fear.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Learning relaxation and breathing exercises can assist in managing anxiety responses when confronted with blood or blood-related situations.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation : Practices focusing on staying present in the moment can aid in reducing overall anxiety levels and managing the fear response to blood.
  • Medication: In severe cases where the phobia significantly impacts daily life, a doctor might prescribe anti-anxiety medications or beta-blockers to manage symptoms during exposure therapy or specific situations.
  • Support Groups or Counseling: Joining support groups or seeking counseling can provide a supportive environment to discuss fears and gain insights from others facing similar challenges.

The most effective treatment often involves a combination of therapies tailored to an individual’s specific needs and the severity of their hemophobia. Seeking help from mental health professionals or therapists experienced in treating phobias can guide individuals toward overcoming their fear of blood.

Prevalence Rate

fear of blood

Now, here’s a mind-blowing fact: hemophobia isn’t as rare as you might think. Surveys suggest that it’s among the top fears people have, right up there with heights and spiders. So, if you’ve ever felt queasy at the sight of blood, you’re not alone in this wild phobia club.

Interesting Fact

Did you know that some people overcome their fear by actually training to work with blood? Yep, phlebotomists – individuals who skillfully draw blood were once fearful too.

Trypanophobia and Hemophobia

The fear of needles is known as trypanophobia . It often ties into a broader fear of medical procedures or injections rather than solely the sight of blood. This fear can stem from various sources, including

Past Trauma: A negative or painful experience during a medical procedure involving needles can lead to a fear of needles. Traumatic events can leave a lasting impact, causing significant anxiety when faced with similar situations.

Fear of Pain: Some individuals fear the physical sensation associated with needle pricks, even if it’s minimal. The anticipation of pain can trigger anxiety or panic responses.

  • Sensitivity to Bodily Intrusions: The idea of a foreign object entering the body, even for a beneficial or necessary reason like drawing blood, can cause discomfort or fear in some individuals.
  • Anxiety about Health Procedures: For some, medical settings can induce anxiety or fear due to the environment, leading to a broader fear of medical procedures or needles specifically.
  • Lack of Control: Feeling a lack of control over the situation, especially when someone else is administering the needle, can intensify the fear of certain individuals.

Though it’s normal to be uneasy around blood. If this fear is hindering your ability to get routine medical check-ups or necessary treatments. Seeking help from a mental health professional trained in treating phobias could be beneficial. Effective treatment for hemophobia can ease the anxiety linked to this fear and support your recovery from its symptoms.

Next time you catch yourself feeling woozy at the sight of blood, remember, that you’re not alone, and there are a whole bunch of fascinating ways to tackle that fear!


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  • Understanding Hemophobia: Blood-Injury Phobia

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Can’t stand the sight of blood? Here’s what you need to know about treatment for blood-injury phobia.

If you have blood-injury phobia, the sight of blood makes you faint or feel nauseous, then you’re in the right place. You need to know about treatment for blood-injury phobia and what options are available so that you can decide which treatment or combination of treatments will be most effective in reducing or eliminating your fear of blood and injury. Blood-injury phobia (medically known as haemophobia) affects nearly 12% of the population worldwide and accounts for about 7 million emergency room visits per year in the United States alone, according to the National Blood Services Organization.

The signs and symptoms

Many people who suffer from blood injury phobia experience intense fear, anxiety, and panic when they see or are exposed to any kind of blood or injury. The most common symptoms include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, nausea, fainting (sometimes called syncope), dizziness and chills. It is not uncommon for some individuals to pass out at the site of blood or injury. If a person suffers from this type of reaction, he may also feel strong emotional reactions such as sadness, anger, frustration, embarrassment or shame. People with this phobia may avoid work in medical professions, have trouble functioning on a day-to-day basis because of their fear and anxiety, or use avoidance behaviors such as wearing long sleeves even in hot weather to cover their skin.

Treatments available

Many people with a fear of blood and injury will benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or exposure therapy, which gradually exposes them to things they find frightening. Medication is sometimes used in conjunction with other treatments, but there are no medications specifically approved by the FDA for treating this type of fear. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be prescribed to help manage anxiety symptoms related to the phobia. It’s important to note that antidepressants can take several weeks before their effects start being felt, so it may not be an effective option if someone is experiencing extreme distress due to their condition. The tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine may also be helpful in managing blood-injury phobias as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If you or a loved one are suffering from blood injury phobia, you will need to see an expert in exposure therapy who is familiar with the use of applied pressure techniques.

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Does the Sight of Blood Make You Anxious? It Could Be Hemophobia.

essay on fear of blood

It’s a common scene: A phlebotomist guides her patient into the room, asks him to sit. She cleans his skin with rubbing alcohol, loops a tourniquet around his forearm. She puts the needle in position and warns him that he may feel a slight pinch. The clear vial attached to the needle fills with a bright pool of red. Minutes later, the procedure is over, and the patient is free to go.

It seems simple enough, but for many people, appointments like these are impossible to complete. If you’re always postponing your regular doctor check-ups in a cold sweat, you may be facing the anxiety condition hemophobia.

Hemophobia is the fear of blood , and it can be extremely inhibiting for those who live with it. People who have hemophobia may avoid necessary medical care or stay away from activities or sports that involve the risk of being injured (and bleeding). Just thinking about surgery or seeing one acted out on a TV show can be enough to make your heart race if you live with the condition.

If any of this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Researchers estimate that hemophobia affects approximately 3-4% of the population , but with the right treatment, you can get past your anxiety. Read on to learn more about hemophobia and what you can do if you’re struggling.

What Is Hemophobia?

Hemophobia is an intense fear of blood. It’s listed as blood injection injury phobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders (DSM-5), though it differs from injection phobia and injury phobia in a number of key ways.

“[Hemophobia] can come on as a result of seeing one’s own blood or the blood of another,” Sheva Rajaee , LMFT, director of the Center for Anxiety and OCD, told the Mighty. While many people experience unease at the sight of blood, your discomfort may rise to the level of a phobia when your “anxiety response to the sight, mention or thought of blood causes an exaggerated or prolonged fear response.”

Hemophobia can manifest in a number of ways, according to Rajaee. Some common experiences of people who live with the condition are:

  • Avoidance of blood, including the sight or mention of blood
  • Avoidance of situations or activities that could result in bleeding or injury
  • Experiencing sweaty palms, dizziness, nausea or racing thoughts at the sight of blood

Dr. Tabasom Vahidi, Ph.D. , told The Mighty that unlike other phobias , people living with hemophobia can experience a vasovagal response, or “fainting induced by a decrease in blood pressure.” John Sanford, who used to struggle with hemophobia, once described the vasovagal response in a piece for Stanford Medicine :

Observing blood seep from a wound, flow into a syringe or spatter on the ground, blood phobics initially will respond like other phobics — that is, their heart rate and blood pressure will increase. But then something else will happen: Their heart rate and blood pressure will suddenly drop, causing dizziness, sweatiness, tunnel vision, nausea, fainting or some combination of these symptoms. This is a vasovagal response … which does not generally occur with other phobias.

It’s worth noting that the vasovagal response is usually harmless, though it is possible to be injured from falling when the response is activated.

What Causes Hemophobia?

Researchers have yet to determine what exactly causes hemophobia. While Rajaee said that phobias can manifest in response to something that happened in your environment, she noted that “unlike other psychological conditions, many phobias and anxiety-related disorders do not have a basis in trauma and do not need to have a rational or familial basis in order to manifest.”

Some studies have suggested that individuals can be genetically predisposed to develop the condition. Researchers have also put forward the idea that hemophobia developed as an evolutionary response to being injured. According to this theory, ancient humans injured by predators may have escaped a grisly fate by catching sight of their own blood and fainting. Predator species tend to pass over prey that abruptly stops moving.

Another possible cause of hemophobia is “an overactive amygdala,” according to Rajaee. The amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for detecting threats and initiating the body’s survival fear responses . Several researchers have proposed a link between amygdala dysfunction and anxiety disorders, including phobias.

Treatment for Hemophobia

In order to protect themselves, people living with hemophobia often engage in “safety” or avoidance behaviors to temporarily reduce their anxiety. It may seem to help in the moment, but unfortunately, these patterns of avoidance actually worsen your fear over time: “Research has confirmed that any attempt to reduce anxiety or avoid your fear can intensify it in the long run,” Vahidi explained.

For that reason, treatment for hemophobia centers on staying with your discomfort and anxiety in small but increasingly difficult steps while a therapist teaches you tools to manage your anxiety. “[It] involves a great deal of motivation and willingness to temporarily intensify anxiety to ultimately overcome your fear,” Vahidi said. This may feel scary at first, but phobias have high recovery rates when treated in this way.

Exposure therapy also happens over a long period of time, and exposures are repeated. In this way, the brain “gets retrained to experience the fear as safe so that the body’s ‘fight or flight’ [response] does not get activated each time one is faced with a trigger,’ Vahidi said.

While some phobias — such as the fear of snakes — can be relatively benign because it’s typically best practice to avoid dangerous situations anyway, “the risks are high” for people who live with hemophobia:

“One of my patients had an intense fear of needles and she avoided getting her blood drawn for years, in spite of the medical risks,” Vahidi said. “Everyone, at some point in their lives, may need to have surgery and medical assessments that involve blood and needles.”

Vahidi guided her client through a series of exposures, including watching videos of blood draws, tying a tourniquet on her arm, being exposed to a medical lab and watching in-person blood draws. “We worked collaboratively to plan every exposure, and I closely guided her through the steps while tracking her anxiety,” Vahidi said. At the end of treatment, the patient had her blood drawn by a phlebotomist.

If you have experienced a vasovagal response, your therapist may also teach you the “applied tension” technique developed by Swedish psychologist Lars-Göran Öst . The technique involves tensing the muscles in your arms, torso and legs to counter the lowered blood pressure and slow heart rate that can lead to fainting.

Vahidi said it’s also important for you and your therapist to identify what is triggering your fear: “As a clinician, it’s important to identify the fear. Do they fear fainting or do they fear the needle?”

If exposure therapy sounds difficult to you, that’s because it is. Dr. Vahidi, who went through exposure therapy for her fear of flying, knows that firsthand. But “treating your fear is possible,” Vahidi said. “In fact, phobias have high recovery rates when treated properly.”

“Anxiety disorders, including phobias, are highly treatable with the right treatment ,” Rajaee agreed. “Though it may seem incredibly difficult to imagine, rewiring of the fear response when faced with blood or possible contamination is achievable.”

For more on phobias, check out the following stories from our Mighty community:

  • Is Pistanthrophobia Getting in the Way of Your Relationships?
  • The Reality of Emetophobia and How I’m Beating It
  • Trypophobia: The Anxiety Struggle That Can Make Your Skin Crawl

Article updated Feb. 14, 2020.

Image via Getty/Daria Zaseda

Hi! I was a reporter at The Mighty.


Overcoming Patient Anxiety: Tips for Easing Fear of Blood Draw

For many individuals, the fear of blood draws is more than just a passing discomfort—it’s a genuine phobia that can trigger intense anxiety. Phlebotomy, the process of drawing blood for medical tests or donations, is an essential aspect of healthcare that can’t be ignored. Fortunately, there are several effective strategies that both phlebotomists and patients can employ to manage and overcome the fear of blood draws. In this article, we’ll explore some practical tips to ease anxiety and discomfort during blood collection.

Understanding the Fear

The fear of blood draws, known as hemophobia or trypanophobia, is a common occurrence, affecting people of all ages. For patients, the fear can be deeply distressing and might even deter them from seeking necessary medical attention. Phlebotomists, too, are aware of the challenges posed by anxious patients, as managing their fears is crucial for ensuring a smooth blood collection process.

Tips for Phlebotomists

  • Empathy and Communication: Establishing a rapport with patients is key. Take a few moments to explain the procedure and address any concerns they might have. A phlebotomist’s compassionate and reassuring demeanor can go a long way in alleviating anxiety.
  • Create a Comforting Environment: The ambiance of the room plays a significant role in easing anxiety. Dimming bright lights, playing soothing music, and maintaining a clean and organized workspace can help patients feel more at ease.
  • Distraction Techniques: Engage patients in conversation about topics unrelated to the blood draw. This can help divert their attention from the procedure itself. Alternatively, some phlebotomy centers provide magazines, puzzles, or even virtual reality headsets to help patients relax.
  • Use of Topical Anesthetics: Consider using a topical numbing cream or gel on the patient’s skin before the blood draw. This can help minimize the discomfort associated with needle insertion.
  • Slow and Steady Approach: Adopt a calm and unhurried approach during the blood draw. Swift, confident movements can help reassure patients that the process will be quick and relatively painless.
  • Offer Control: Allow patients to choose the arm from which blood will be drawn, if possible. Providing them with a sense of control can help alleviate feelings of helplessness.

Tips for Patients

  • Communication: Let your phlebotomist know about your anxiety beforehand. Open communication will allow them to tailor their approach to your needs.
  • Deep Breathing: Practice deep breathing exercises before and during the procedure. Slow, deep breaths can help relax your body and mind.
  • Distraction Techniques: Bring along a book, music, or a friend who can engage you in conversation during the procedure. Distractions can significantly reduce anxiety.
  • Visualization: Close your eyes and visualize a calm and peaceful scene. Immerse yourself in the imagery to divert your focus from the blood draw.
  • Physical Comfort: Wear loose clothing that can be easily rolled up or moved aside. This will make it easier for the phlebotomist to access your arm.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Reward yourself after the blood draw. Plan a treat or an activity you enjoy, so you have something to look forward to.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Practice mindfulness techniques or meditation leading up to the appointment. These practices can help ground you and reduce anxiety.
  • Educate Yourself: Learn about the blood draw process. Sometimes, understanding the procedure in detail can help demystify it and ease your fears.

The fear of blood draws is a valid concern that affects both patients and phlebotomists. By employing a combination of empathy, communication, distraction techniques, and relaxation strategies, both parties can work together to make the blood draw process less daunting. Whether you’re a phlebotomist striving to create a calming environment or a patient seeking ways to manage your anxiety, these practical tips can help ensure a smoother and more comfortable blood collection experience. Remember, with patience and cooperation, the fear of blood draws can be managed effectively, allowing everyone involved to focus on the importance of the procedure itself rather than the anxiety it may induce.


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Blood and Society

By William Aird


Just as blood itself is fundamental to biological functioning, the  concept  of blood is fundamental to human culture. From linguistics to art to spirituality and religion, blood flows through collective consciousness across history, shifting and changing in context, but always meaning something to us. In this essay, we ask what does blood symbolize, beyond its role in medicine? What functions does it serve socially, culturally, and politically?

We will begin with prehistoric times, when blood was seen as a life-force, at once revered and feared. We will see that prehistoric man does not distinguish between medicine, magic and religion, and that blood as entity and concept breaches each of these boundaries. From this cultural cauldron emerged a number of stereotypic blood rituals, including blood sacrifice, bloodletting, blood consumption and blood taboos, which were collectively designed to appease the gods and to provide the common man with strength, vitality and protection. Remarkably, these practices, which we will discuss in turn, arose independently over and over again in different populations around the world, separated by thousands of years, suggesting a kind of innate universalism in our reckoning with this mysterious red fluid.

Modern medicine, for all its advances, has done little to quell our uneasy – and often irrational – relationship with blood. When a nurse or phlebotomist draws blood from my arm, I am sure to turn my gaze. Otherwise I become queasy watching my own blood pour into a vacutainer. Not everyone does, but I know I am not alone. Why should we be distraught at the sight of our own blood? We have all experienced nosebleeds before. In most cases, we regard the occurrence as a mere annoyance. However, if the bleeding is heavy, we may become frightened. Although epistaxis (a medical term for nosebleed) is rarely a matter of life and death, there is something about spilled blood, especially when it’s our own, that evokes a sense of horror, an emotion that resides deep within the brain’s amygdala, most certainly shared with our earliest ancestors.

As we will discuss, the fear of blood (or is it awe?) can be overridden by certain powerful societal and cultural forces. How else can we explain parents attending circumcision ceremonies in the Jewish religion (faith over fear of blood), partners providing support during childbirth (love and commitment over fear of blood), those who attend a tattoo parlor or piercing shop (pursuit of self-expression over fear of blood), and blood donors who lose up to half a liter of blood in one sitting (goodwill over fear of blood)? The loss of blood during war is often considered a noble venture, if not by the fallen, then certainly by the leaders of nations. We commemorate these brave soldiers by attaching a blood-red poppy to our lapel every year.

And we can always play out our visceral horror of blood in the safety of our stadium seats, theaters and living rooms. Whether through the gladiator fights of Ancient Rome, the cockfights of past and present, the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s (the infamous Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League who, in the 1970s, “spilled enough  blood  to fill a decade’s worth of Stanley Cups”) 1 , or modern-day mixed martial arts, we have set up the rules so that we can engage with blood without having to sacrifice a single drop of our own. Some of us welcome, indeed even relish, such opportunities. Others are more likely to recoil and avoid such scenes altogether.

essay on fear of blood

There is no shortage of television shows and movies on vampires, not to mention films of the Gothic horror genre. When we watch these offerings, we may experience intense emotions. As history has taught us, some of these reactions are undoubtedly hard-wired and shared between most viewers. Other reactions are shaped by individual life histories, and in this way are highly subjective. That’s the wonder of blood: it is universal yet so deeply personal.

essay on fear of blood

Blood magic

The concept of blood has held our collective fixation since the earliest humans recognized that uncontrolled bleeding at the hands of an animal predator or an enemy tribe spelled certain death. To prehistoric humans, blood was observed to flow when a wound was opened and to stop flowing when life was gone, no matter the cause of death. In a world driven by incomprehensible forces, yet to be probed and mapped by modern science, blood was held in evidence to be equivalent to life itself.

There is no evidence of medicine until the Neolithic period, about 7,000-10,000 years ago, when prehistoric humans exchanged their food-gathering ways for a life of agriculture. Even then, medicine was inseparable from magico-religious ideas. Neolithic peoples saw danger everywhere: they were surrounded by hostile forces, and lived on constant guard against disease-causing ghosts, spirits, deities and sorcerers. A man felled by the spell of a sorcerer was the target of another man’s wrath, or magic. When illness arose from a supernatural agency, a religious explanation was in order. “We must remember,” writes Henry Sigerist (1891-1957), a renowned Swiss medical historian, “that the primitive does not distinguish between medicine, magic and religion… to him they are one, a set of practices intended to protect him against evil forces and to bring him good luck.” 3

In keeping with this trend, the earliest recorded engagements with blood as concept and substance interweave spirituality, ritualism, and prehistoric medicine. Neolithic peoples could see blood, smell it, taste it and feel it. They could watch it pour out of a wound until an animal went cold, but they had no idea what its true purpose was. Such knowledge would elude humankind for the next several thousand years. What they saw was an animating life force that could be leveraged for magical and religious purposes to appease the gods and win favor with or punish their fellow tribesmen. Writing about prehistoric man, Bernard Seeman concluded that “Our knowledge of blood has been colored by magical concepts often disguised as philosophy, theology or science… the greatest offering man could make to the demons of his shadowy world was the gift of blood.” 4

Medicine Man Performing by George Catlin

Blood sacrifices

Ritualized blood offerings as both spiritual practice and early medicine permeate anthropological data across disparate geographic regions, reflecting the near-universalism of blood as spiritual symbol and ritual tool. In the Neolithic period, people who lived by tilling the soil routinely offered up blood sacrifices in preparation for the spring harvest. 5

The Aztecs, a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico between 1300 and 1519 AD, were known to use blood and sacrifice (including humans) as offerings to the Sun God. 6 They were reported to have sliced out the hearts of victims and spill their blood on temple altars. Such ritual killings and sacrifice of blood served to appease the Sun God, and to remind enemies of the strength of the empire. 7

essay on fear of blood

The Maya, another rich culture indigenous to modern Mexico, incorporated ceremonial blood-drawing, self-mutilation and auto-sacrifice in their spiritual practice. Describing 16th century Maya civilization, Diego de Landa writes:

They offered sacrifices of their own blood, sometimes cutting themselves around in pieces and they left them in this way as a sign. Other times they pierced their cheeks, at others their lower lips. Sometimes they scarify certain parts of their bodies, at others they pierced their tongues in a slanting direction from side to side and passed bits of straw through the holes with horrible suffering; others slit the superfluous part of the virile member leaving it as they did their ears. 8

essay on fear of blood

Half a world away, the Vikings made frequent blood and animal sacrifices to keep on good terms with the gods. They chose dedicated sacrificial sites where they believed they would have the strongest contact with the gods. In the 13th century, horses were the preferred sacrificial animal. They were made to bleed into bowls, and twigs were then used to paint the altars, walls and ritual participants with blood. 9

essay on fear of blood

Today, ritual bloodletting continues in certain parts of the world. During the festival of Ashura in Kabul, Shi’ite participants enact ritualized penitence and colorful celebration in memory of Imam Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson who was killed in a battle in 680 AD. 10 During the last day of the festival, participants are whipped with flails tipped with razor-sharp blades. Aryn Baker, who wrote an essay on this ritual in Time Magazine, quoted a local participant: “Our imam was killed, his blood was shed for Islam, so we shed our blood for Islam.” 11

essay on fear of blood

To this day, different ethnic groups from Ghana travel to the shrine and dwelling place of the West African deity  Tongnaab , near the remote northern village of Tengzug, to consult with the deity. These worshipers bring chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, and even dogs to sacrifice—offerings to curry favor in their search for fertility, stability, prosperity, and security in life. Others sacrifice to make amends for evil acts and to reverse the negative consequences of sin or curse. The spirits in the shrines are believed to feed off the life-blood of animals, so requests made for help and atonement must be accompanied by sacrifice. Jawbones and skulls of sacrificed animals are often displayed to show the number of sacrifices a person has performed or to demonstrate the power of a particular shrine. 12

Contemporary circumcision is an outgrowth of prehistoric blood sacrifice, in which the firstborn son was sometimes offered as a sacrifice, possibly for continued fertility. 13 In the Jewish faith, circumcision is sometimes referred to as the covenant of Abraham, who circumcised himself in order to become a Jew. Today, Orthodox and Conservative Jews still practice circumcision or, in adults, a ritual reenactment called  hatafat dam brit,  in which the mohel (circumciser) pricks the skin around the glans penis with a hypodermic needle or a lancet and collects the blood on a gauze pad, which is then shown to three witnesses. 14 Through this practice, the adult convert is accepted into the Jewish faith. In a New York Times article, Jeffrey Rosen describes a male circumcision ritual practiced by some Hasidic Jews in New York: “The ritual is called oral suction, or metzitzah b’peh . After removing the foreskin, the mohel, who conducts the circumcision, cleans the wound by sucking blood from it.” 15

essay on fear of blood

The shedding of blood in ritual sacrifice spans thousands of years. Whether the offering is embedded in magico-religious beliefs or is carried out as a purely symbolic gesture, it has withstood the test of time as a powerful cultural motif.


Blood removal has played a prominent role in magico-religious-medical practice since the dawn of mankind. “Bleeding,” wrote the historian Erwin Ackerknecht, “is an almost universal trait in primitive medicine.” 16 In Mexico, prehistoric hunters and gatherers left evidence of ritual bloodletting in a small well-hidden cave named Cuevo Pilote. Prehistoric tribes across South America used venesection (bloodletting by cutting a vein) or scarification (bleeding by creating scratches in the skin) to drive out a spirit, which escaped with the blood that flowed. 17 The ancient Maya practiced sacrificial bloodletting to communicate with their dead ancestors and their gods. 18 When Ancient Egyptians slaughtered a cow or an ox, they would lay it on its back and cut the arteries of its throat with a metal knife. Its blood was collected and examined to make sure that the animal was not possessed by a spirit. 19

Bloodletting would become a therapeutic panacea from the early centuries BC to the 1800s. It was believed to restore humoral balance, a system of physiology that was codified by Galen in the 1st century AD and promulgated by the Church over the following 17 centuries. Bloodletting gradually fell out of favor as Galen’s system of humors gave way to an understanding of the circulation as a closed system with limiting quantities of recycled blood. Today, bloodletting is still practiced by tribes around the world on magico-religious grounds, while Western medicine leverages bloodletting for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. 

Bloodletting - Wikipedia

A modern-day form of bloodletting is also seen with the practice of self-cutting. This mode of self-injury is often described as a coping strategy to deal with overwhelming feelings or experiences of dissociation. 20 Sociological enquiries have shown that self-injurers place high value on the sight of their blood. A participant in one study was quoted as saying, “I loved the sight of my own blood seeping out of fresh wounds.” 21 The study’s author explains that “Looking at blood is perceived as exhilarating or fascinating, comforting or calming.” 22 It symbolizes to the self-injurer that they are alive, vital and real. Reminiscent of ancient bloodletting, today’s self-cutter often feels their inner pain and fear flow outwards with their blood.

essay on fear of blood

Blood meals

The fusion of ritualism and ancient medicine involved “treatments” and cures that we now know to be symbolic, but which seemed clinically sound (and why not?). For some early humans, blood was viewed as a source of strength (a life force) to be consumed for its vitality. The blood of a mammoth might provide strength, while that of a hawk might sharpen vision. When a warrior of ancient Scythia killed his first opponent in battle, he drank his victim’s blood to gain strength from the life-giving fluid. 23

In Rome during the early centuries AD, country-folk who practiced self-help medicine were said to treat epilepsy by drinking the blood of a gladiator whose throat had been slit. 24 Certain tribes indigenous to New South Wales would feed the sick with raw or slightly cooked blood drawn from their male friends, who willingly bled themselves for the sake of the patient. 25

The consumption of blood as food and drink continues to this day. The Maasai, a pastoralist people living primarily in southern Kenya and northern Tanzani, traditionally live off a diet of beef, milk, and blood. 26 Beyond its dietary function, the mixture of blood and milk is also used as a ritual drink for special celebrations and for healing the sick. 27 Maasai tradition also involves giving blood to drunken elders to alleviate intoxication and hangover.

essay on fear of blood

Readers who have travelled to the British Isles may have tried black sausage, made with blood from pigs and cows and recommended for those on a shoe-string budget because blood is an inexpensive ingredient.

essay on fear of blood

And then, of course, there are the vampires, so frequently represented in popular culture. Vampire folklore began with Bram Stoker’s  Dracula , published in 1897. Today, there is no shortage of vampiric television offerings: The Vampire Diaries, Buffy the Vampire Slayer , and True Blood , to name just a few. A common theme in these shows is the fictional vampire’s dependency on blood as an essential life force.

essay on fear of blood

Vampires are not merely figments of our imagination. The annals of true crime attest to the occasional deranged killer caught up in some twisted vampiric roleplaying. On top of that, there are scattered, peaceful blood-feeding communities in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere around the world. In a fascinating piece by David Robson for the BBC in 2015, one such group in New Orleans was uncovered. They are an eclectic bunch, bound together by a common “need” to drink blood. He describes a donor-vampire pair engaged in a “feeding”:

It begins as clinically as a medical procedure. His acquaintance first swabs a small patch on Browning’s upper back with alcohol [Browning being the name of the blood donor]. He then punctures it with a disposable hobby scalpel, and squeezes until the blood starts flowing. Lowering his lips to the wound, Browning’s associate now starts lapping up the wine-dark liquid. 28

We learn that donors, who are hard to come by, can at least choose whether the blood is collected from a cut with a scalpel, or intravenously with a cannula or butterfly needle.

essay on fear of blood

While blood feeding practices span thousands of years, their justification and rationale should be considered in the context of the times. Before the discovery of the circulation and the unraveling of humoralism, blood was widely seen to contain spirits – good and bad – that could be passed on to the consumer. Blood meals made perfect sense, if only you could find a source with the desired spiritual mix. Today, of course, we understand that blood, when ingested, is no greater than the sum of its nutritional parts and that its consumption is more likely to reflect a dietary preference or a ritualistic practice.     

Blood taboos

Rules of avoidance – or taboos – are among the oldest of unwritten code of laws. 29 Taboos are designed to protect against terrible consequences. With blood’s intimate connection to life and death, and its seeming potency as a magical force, there have been occasions where blood was viewed not as a positive life force, but instead as an evil force to be reckoned with.

We noted earlier that prehistoric peoples drank blood as a source of vitality. Others avoided drinking blood because it contained unwanted qualities. So, while one prehistoric tribe might drink blood from a hawk to sharpen their vision, other tribes might place a taboo on such an activity out of fear they would be possessed by the hawk’s spirit.

Invocations of blood in mainstream religious doctrine include dietary taboos. The Jewish taboo against blood is clearly articulated in the Old Testament: “And whatsoever man there be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, which hunteth and catcheth any beast or fowl that may be eaten: he shall even pour out the blood thereof and cover it with dust” (Lev. 17:13). Islam also forbids the consumption of blood. In both Jewish and Islamic faiths, draining of blood from the animal is required before consumption of the meat (though not all followers adhere to these guidelines). Blood taboos are only one dimension of religious mobilization of blood imagery. We will discuss the centrality of blood symbolism in Christianity in the section on “Blood Covenant”.

essay on fear of blood

Perhaps the most notable (and universal) of blood taboos has revolved around menses, that natural phenomenon perpetually shrouded in secrecy and fear. Prior to our understanding of the inter-connection between ovulation and menstruation in the 1800s, mystical explanations prevailed, the most common being that menstruation periodically rids the woman’s body of something undesirable that had accumulated in the blood. According to this view, menstruation is a process of purification. A more magical belief was that menstrual blood contained an evil spirit, which would then have the capacity to harm her environment. For this reason, women were isolated during their menstrual cycle. For example, in prehistoric times menstruating women were typically quarantined for fear that anything they touched or looked at might be destroyed. Women in the Kafir tribes of South Africa were secluded from the cattle and milk supply, while Galela women were not permitted to enter tobacco fields for fear of damaging the crop. 30

Contemporary blood taboos related to menstruation continue to shape themselves around symbols of impurity and filth. Cultural responses to this symbolism often involve gestures of isolation and social exclusion during the period of menstruation. In an article about menstruation myths in modern day India, Garg and Anand review some of these practices, writing that in many Indian households, menstruating women are barred from entering the kitchen (preparing and handling food is strictly forbidden) and restricted from offering prayers and touching holy books for fear of contamination. 31 In Nepal, menstruating women are traditionally banished to a specially built hut, often lacking a proper bed, until menstruation has ceased. During the period of menstruation, they are forbidden from touching plants, cattle, or men. Such taboos around menstruation have caught the attention of global health leaders, who recognize their negative impact on “women’s emotional state, mentality and lifestyle and most importantly, health.” 32 Cultural symbolism that associates menstruation with impurity shapes the routines, identities, and power dynamics experienced by menstruating women within those cultures.

Discomfort with menstrual blood extends to Western cultures. When discussed, it is frequently characterized euphemistically as ‘that time of the month’. There is rarely explicit reference to blood itself. Advertisements for hygienic products have traditionally tiptoed around the concept of menstrual blood. Women are typically portrayed as fun-loving, physically active and dressed in white.

essay on fear of blood

Interestingly, recent advertising campaigns have started to dismantle the taboo. For example, Kotex posted a new advertising campaign for pads featuring red liquid instead of the traditional blue. A company executive was quoted as saying: “Blood is blood. This is something that every woman has experienced, and there is nothing to hide.” 33

Libra, a supplier of menstrual pads, launched a destigmatizing ad campaign in 2017 called Blood Normal. 34 Not only did they show menstrual blood as red, but they did so on the inside of a woman’s thigh.

essay on fear of blood

While blood taboos around menstruation are pervasive, the stigma of uncleanliness and disgust are particularly troublesome in women who cannot afford hygienic products. This situation, which has been labeled ‘period poverty’, leads to the use of unhygienic measures, such as paper towels, cardboard and toilet paper. Cultural shame associated with menstruation prevents these individuals from talking about their predicament. 35 This is an example of how symbolic associations with blood may have material impact and supports the notion that symbols are important.

Seeman writes that blood taboos, as with blood magic, “must have arisen out of humanity’s relatively common response to a common need at a common level of cultural development”. 36 That being said, the practice of blood consumption, which we discussed in the previous section, is antithetical to blood taboos and cautions against adopting a purely universalist interpretation of humankind’s cultural reaction to blood.

Blood covenant        

With the development of organized religion in the early centuries BC, we see the consolidation of blood-related symbolism from disparate spiritual traditions into religious texts. This development is important in our tracing of cultural engagement with blood as substance and symbol. The advent of the printing press in the mid-15th century and the rise in literacy rates over ensuing years accelerated the dissemination of cultural ideas through language. Colonial violence and global expansion furthered the reach of ossifying notions of body, spirit, and symbol.

Blood is a pervasive Christian religious symbol. The Catholic Church holds that the blood of Jesus can cleanse us from all sin and that Christ’s shedding of blood at the Crucifixion represents the hope of salvation. The Bible mentions blood more than 400 times. 37 In John 6:54 in the Bible, Jesus states: ”The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” 38

The “blood” of Christ is mentioned in the writings of the New Testament nearly three times as often as the “Cross” of Christ, and five times more frequently than the “death” of Christ. 39 The blood of Christ stands not for his death but rather for his life released through death.

Today, Christians take communion with the understanding that the cup of wine symbolizes Jesus’s blood. This is not unlike imitative magic practiced by prehistoric peoples. Some Roman Catholics even believe in transubstantiation , or the change of substance or essence by which the wine becomes in reality the blood of Jesus Christ.

essay on fear of blood

Since the days of Jesus’s apostles in the 1st century, Christians have been directed to “abstain” and “keep” from blood. 40 As mentioned above, both Jewish and Muslim doctrines forbid the consumption of blood. Kosher Jews adhere to the practice of draining blood from meat, both at the time of slaughter and through salting. 41 Jehovah’s Witnesses traditionally implicate passages from both the Old and New Testaments in their refusal to receive blood transfusions, even when it means the difference between life and death. 42

So, we see that religion, which until the emergence of modern medicine held sway over our views of blood as entity and concept – primarily through the promulgation of Galenism, but also by virtue of ritualization – continues to shape our cultural understanding of blood. As illustrated by the refusal of some Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusions, such influence may have serious material consequences from a health standpoint.

Blood bonds

Blood has been used to cement relationships between individual members of society for centuries. Such transactions – typically carried out in the setting of a ceremony – are termed blood bonds or blood oaths . In 440 BC, Herodotus, an Ancient Greek historian, wrote:

Oaths among the Scyths are accompanied with the following ceremonies: a large earthen bowl is filled with wine, and the parties to the oath, wounding themselves slightly with a knife or an awl, drop some of their blood into the wine… lastly the two contracting parties drink each a draught from the blow. 43

A blood oath was famously used to seal a pact among the leaders of seven Hungarian tribes in the 11th century. Participants cut their arms and let their blood spill into a chalice, sealing their status as blood brothers. 44

The essence of the symbolism imbued in the practice of blood bonds persists in contemporary life. Blood oath ceremonies, which involve two or more people pressing together small cuts (generally on a finger, hand, or forearm), represent the idea that each person’s blood now flows in the other participant or participants’ veins.

Blood oaths establish people who are unrelated by birth as “blood brothers” or “blood sisters.” They appear in contemporary culture in a range of contexts. For example, blood oaths are used in initiation rituals in the Mafia, as well as in prison gangs.

There are variations on the theme of a blood oath. Consider, for example, the blood vial that was popularized by Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton. The actors each wore a necklace containing each other’s blood. “She thought it would be interesting and romantic”, said Thornton, “if we took a little razorblade and sliced our fingers, smeared a little blood on these lockets and you wear it around your neck just like you wear your son or daughter’s baby hair in one”. 45

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Lest others wish to follow suit, they can order their own vial necklaces online. Why would you choose to go this route? Well, they inform us, “to carry your lover’s blood is said to create a bond between two souls”. 46 The vials and necklaces are purchased as part of a kit, which also contains a full set of medical supplies for drawing a few drops of blood. It even includes medical grade anticoagulant to keep the blood in liquid form!

Popular culture is rife with linguistic invocations of blood and oath, whether in the form of blood oaths, blood brothers, or blood pacts. They have been featured in numerous television shows and movies including Game of Thrones, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Andy Griffith Show, Punky Brewster Malcolm in the Middle, Star Trek, The Hangover, and The Lord of the Rings. The pervasiveness of imagery related to blood as ritual connector reflects the ongoing potency of this symbolism.

The mobilization of the color red as a symbol of vitality and magical powers can be traced back to the paleolithic period, with burial customs calling for the use of ochre as a symbol of life-giving blood. 47 A symbolic link between blood and red – both essential and timeless – finds expression in practices, rituals and symbols such as power, love, vigor, and beauty.

Prehistoric man painted bodies of the sick and dead the color red using ochre, likely in an effort to provide them with life force. Red was also used in prehistoric art, evidenced by traces found in caves across the world. 48 In signifying blood, red – for example, in the form of jewelry or clothing – has symbolized love and fidelity for centuries. Red, symbolic of the blood of Christ, features prominently in Christianity, including the red robes worn by Cardinals.

With blood as its essential and organic signified, the color red continues to carry symbolic currency in mainstream contemporary culture. “New” trends, rituals, and practices engage red in gestures of vitality, danger, and remembrance.

In advertising, the color red is used to convey sensuality, desire, love, vitality, strength, power and danger. 49 Research has shown that red, relative to other achromatic and chromatic colors, leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable. 50 The extent to which the red-attraction or red-sex links are related to blood imagery and whether or not these connections are culturally conditioned or genetically programmed is unknown.

Nonetheless, modern day lipstick manufacturers have leveraged these concepts to advertise and display their red lipstick with great pride, if not guilty pleasure. One such brand is called Forbidden Lipstick: Written in blood, “the most perfect blood red lipstick we’ve ever found“. 51 Another company markets a red lipstick for “its blood-red vitality”. 52

essay on fear of blood

In signifying blood, red makes us think of war and by extension sacrifice, danger and courage. Blood-red poppies, mentioned in the Introduction, have a long association with Remembrance Day. They are worn on lapels as a memorial, representing the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers in past wars. They are also presented on graves in the form of wreaths.

essay on fear of blood

The symbolism of red, then, is highly context dependent. A parishioner may be spiritually enriched by the red robes of the clergy, whereas the same man may be aroused by the red lipstick of his partner. When Remembrance Day comes around, he may be surrounded on the streets by red poppies that conjure images of bravery and sacrifice in ways that a purple or back colored poppy would simply not evoke. And of course, whatever responses I have to the red color in these three scenarios may well be quite different from yours.

Blood language

The history of blood has seen no shortage of irrational ideas about its larger meaning. While modern science has laid to rest many of the folk theories and superstitions about blood (blood lore), they continue to permeate society, influencing our customs and language. Our everyday language is riddled with references to blood: hot-blooded, cold-blooded, bloodcurdling, bad blood, blue blood, bloodline, lifeblood, bloodbath, fresh blood, bloodthirsty, blood sport, blood money, bloodcurdling, half-blood, young bloods, blood feud, and bloodlust to name just a few examples.

In some cases, blood is used as a metaphor for language and emotions. Consider, for example, the following sentence, which draws on an analogy between blood and language: “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow”. 53 Or the idea that blood running cold is related to fear, and boiling blood to anger. 54 In other cases, the word blood is incorporated into terms (many examples are listed in the previous paragraph) used in reference to the qualities of a person, or a group of individuals. 55 The interpretation and contextualization of these and other blood metaphors is highly language-dependent and varies between different societies.

There are potent associations between blood, identity and social relations. Keith Waloo, an historian from Princeton University, points out in his book Drawing Blood that blood is a “rich symbol of individual identity, social health and group relations.” 56 Before the discovery of genetics, it was widely believed that blood carried the essence of the individual, the family, the race and the nation. Blood was believed to hold the soul of an individual and perpetuate special qualities. The intersection of symbolism, racism, and (pseudo-)science contained within this framework has mobilized blood as an agent of racial exploitation and extermination.

The notion of blood as a carrier of social, emotional, and intellectual worth through race was instrumental to the operation of slave society in America. Invocations of blood historically served to quantify Blackness and Whiteness, and systems of racial classification contributed to structural oppression, informing citizenship and basic rights.  

Such notions continued to rhetorically and materially uphold anti-Black racism long after abolition. African-Americans were routinely categorized by the amount of their “blood” that was considered “African”, a measurement influenced by introductions of “white blood” into their lineage (with this miscegenation often perpetuated through acts of sexual violence).

During the Jim Crow era (from around 1880 to 1960), most states prohibited marriage between a “white person” and “a mulatto or person having one eighth or more of Negro blood”. 57 Contemporary critical race scholars continue to explore the “one drop rule”, by which “anyone with a visually discernable trace of African, or what used to be called ‘Negro,’ ancestry is, simply, black”. 58 In the structural oppression of African-Americans we see the potency of blood language as a determinant of lived and material experience.

essay on fear of blood

Ideas around blood as an essential carrier of racial superiority and inferiority similarly propelled genocide during the World War II. Hitler’s racial conquest was rhetorically upheld by the violent defense of German or “Aryan” blood” While the term Aryan technically refers to a group of languages and not to people or nations, it was mapped onto notions of purity, nationhood, and whiteness.

To have Aryan blood meant that one had pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes, and non-Aryans were construed in Nazi Germany as impure and variably evil. Hitler became obsessed with “racial purity” and used the word Aryan to describe his idea of a “pure German race.” He argued fiercely for the superiority of the Aryan “race” and systematically confined, tortured, and murdered millions of people with “impure” (non-Aryan) blood.

As is the case across linguistics, any sense of neutrality related to blood language is illusory. Blood as substance or semiotic unit does not inherently mean identity, race, gender, culture, or citizenship. These associations, like all language, have developed through repetition and over time, here with material and sometimes lethal implications. De-naturalizing the link between blood and its colloquial referents allows us to uncover its ideological functions and effects.

Cultural imaginings of war have long invoked imagery related to blood to reflect the tremendous loss of life wrought by conflict. “The tree of liberty,” said Thomas Jefferson, “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” In 1913, a war enthusiast penned an essay for Life magazine in which he wrote, “War… causes the blood of the young to tingle so that they do the bidding of other, craftier and wiser men, and shed that blood so that these older, craftier and wiser may profit. Patriotism of this sort is a wonderful and essential thing in a Nation.” 59 In 1921, the US Supreme Court proclaimed: “They (soldiers) pay the cost of war with their blood and their lives, and what is the greatest sacrifice of all, with the blood and lives of their loved ones.” 60 During D-Day, about 4,000 men were killed or wounded on Omaha beach. The beach ran red with blood, earning it the grim name “Bloody Omaha.”

The word blood is often used metaphorically to describe wartime circumstances. “Chinese blood continued to flow after the Japanese surrender,” wrote an author in a piece for the New Yorker on the second world war in Asia, referring to the resumption of civil war between Nationalists and Communists in China. 61 Soldiers in the Crimean war were “up their elbows in blood.” 62 Churchill famously declared to his cabinet in 1940, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” In these examples, the use of the word blood objectifies violence and death, rather than animating the suffering and dying of actual people (someone’s brother, or someone’s son). When it comes to building and reinforcing patriotism and war effort support through language, the substitution of the word blood for the harrowing suffering of individual humans may serve a protective function to depersonalize and sterilize the narrative.

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And the stripped-down narrative – with blood as euphemistic protagonist – has widespread appeal. A brief perusal of war literature reveals many examples of book titles that contain the word “blood”: Sealed with Blood War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America ; Blood, Oil and the Axis: The Allied Resistance Against a Fascist Sate in Iraq and the Levant, 1941 ; The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War; Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood – A World War I Tale . Titles help sell books, and the frequent appearance of blood on the front cover of these volumes cannot be an accident.

It is hard to imagine any publisher of a war book preferring a title that describes spilled guts, decapitation, or dismemberment. After all, this isn’t Hollywood or the boxing ring. This is the ‘real deal’. Perhaps we have a need to insulate ourselves if we are to scratch the surface and explore the subject with purpose. As a word that has both positive and negative meanings, and is familiar to every one of us, blood may provide a convenient aid or tool for navigating narratives of unspeakable tragedy.

In prehistoric times, blood was seen as seen as a life force. We did not really begin to understand the function of blood until the 1800s. So for tens of thousands of years, we were left to our imagination, and it is this imagination that has shaped our concepts of blood through the millennia.

Many of these ideas arose independently. For example, the practice of bloodletting spans all human eras, as do blood taboos. Attitudes towards menstruation are an example of behavior that connects prehistoric man with popular culture. Something about blood evokes near-universal reactions, as though we are somehow bound by immutable, cultural blood laws.

But then again, there are also interesting differences in blood concepts across time, and geographically. As just one example, some groups of individuals follow blood taboos while others consume blood for dietary or spiritual reasons. The existence of distinct blood practices between different people suggests that they are shaped, at least in part, by the contingencies of cultural and societal peculiarities.

This is important, because it suggests a certain fluidity or flexibility in the tapestry of blood concepts whereby cultural reactions or behaviors towards blood that are unhelpful or harmful, may be changed. We may never rid the entertainment world of blood sport and horror movies. But, as discussed earlier, efforts to encourage explicit communication about menstrual blood loss have reached the level of large-scale advertising. Though time will tell, there is hope that such strategies will minimize the shame associated with periods.

Blood is pervasive in body and mind. As substance, it is hidden from view, concealed within skin and flowing in veins. As symbol, it looms large as a fantastical construct whose meaning mutates at the whims of our imagination. We don’t talk about spleen sacrifice or liver bonds. There are no poppies decorated with the color of the pancreas. Blood occupies a privileged place in the hierarchy of body organs and tissues, inexorably woven into society in ways that transcend time and culture.


The author is grateful to Alison Aird for her invaluable input and editing, and Marianne Grant for reviewing the final draft of the manuscript.

About the author

William C. Aird received his MD from University of Western Ontario. He completed a fellowship in Hematology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School in Boston and is presently a practicing hematologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is founder and Executive Director of The Blood Project. Click here to learn more. 

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How I Learned to Love My Granddaughter Without Fear

essay on fear of blood

T he phone call from my daughter in North Carolina came at six o’clock in the morning, unusually early for her. “I’m pregnant,” Maggie announced, her voice bubbling with delight.

From 1,600 miles away I put down my mug of smoky dark-roast coffee and gave a shout. Her news was the last thing I would have expected as I sat in my rented house in Albuquerque, watching roadrunners skitter over the xeriscaping in the front yard, stabbing at the dried mealworms I’d just put out for them. 

Maggie and her husband, Jimmy, together for 11 years and married for eight, had been on the fence about having children. Four years into their marriage, they decided to try for a baby. But after years passed, they both assumed and then accepted it wasn’t going to happen.

Read More: What My Family Taught Me About Loneliness

I’d looked on with a mixture of curiosity and a small bit of envy as friends welcomed one grandchild after another. My oldest son, Liam, in his early 40s, was at the time unattached. I’d resigned myself to the possibility of never knowing that particular brand of joy, although I also couldn’t imagine what it would be like to actually be someone’s grandmother.

And yet, here I was, trying to wrap my head around the idea. I walked through the house, my brindle Boxer dogging my footsteps as I did a quick inventory of room after room. In the next couple of days, I began packing up my belongings and arranging for housing with dear friends back home. 

During one of our phone calls, my daughter had asked, “What do you want your grandmother name to be?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” I confessed. 

Meanwhile, I worked to tamp down a rising anxiety. My second child, Cooper, had been born 40 years ago with a heart defect. When he was 4 days old, he had closed-heart surgery to repair a coarctation of the aorta. What we didn’t know — what no one could have known then, with limited ability to see inside an infant’s heart — was there were other, more deadly defects hidden within, two holes in the wall separating the atria. When he was 6 weeks old, he died quietly at home in my arms as I held and rocked him, unaware he was slipping away from me.

Read More: I Got Divorced. But My Family Is Still Whole

When Cooper died, Liam was 2 1/2. To say I became an overly anxious mother would be an understatement. I monitored every bump and bruise, each sniffle and fever. Nightmares of childhood cancer and other life-threatening illnesses pushed their way into everyday activities. After all, I now knew that the worst was possible. 

Then I became pregnant again. After Maggie was born, I slept with her on my stomach most nights, and when she finally transitioned to a crib, I’d go into her room in the morning, half-expecting to find she’d died.

The grip on my heart gradually released, though, as my healthy children grew into their wonderful selves with nothing more than the usual list of childhood maladies and injuries. And now here was my baby having a baby. My emotions roiled with wonder and excitement, but all of it was overshadowed by a deep, resonating dread.

My daughter sent me the first ultrasound photos of “Little Bean,” a nickname they’d given in the earliest days when a pregnancy app indicated the developing clump of cells was the size of a vanilla bean.

I peered at the mottled, blurry image of my grandchild at 8 weeks gestation. “What am I seeing?” I asked.

“Here,” she texted and sent a second photo, this one with a red arrow pointing to a small darkish blob with a hazy dot in it like a dandelion tuft. “The brighter spot is the heart,” she wrote.

essay on fear of blood

I peered at the picture, trying to imagine the fuzzy image as a beating heart. Something in me broke open, then just as quickly slammed shut. 

Some years before, during my tenure at the domestic-violence and rape crisis agency, a co-worker had asked if I’d mind holding her newborn while she attended a short meeting. I happily took her baby boy in my arms, cooing and grinning at him, and brought him into my office. Sinking into the chair, the first thing I did was check to make sure he was breathing, as easily as one might check to make sure his socks were still on. Hot tears of sorrow and anger spilled down my cheeks at my automatic reaction to holding an infant. 

This is how trauma lives in the body, tentacled through our sense memory. So much of the terrible night my son died remains a blur. What I have recalled all too well is the cold stillness, the weight of his tiny form, and the shock of him being so utterly gone.

Little Bean turned out to be a girl and with the given name June. All ultrasounds and other tests revealed her to be developing as she should. But I couldn’t shake the sense of dread.

“So much could go wrong,” I worried aloud to a friend.

“And so much could go right,” was her loving response.

Read More: We Didn't Have Much Money. My Daughter Still Deserved Joy

Maggie was induced early one morning, and labor progressed slowly over the course of the day. At 9:37 that night I witnessed the moment my daughter pushed her baby girl into the world, a 7 ½-lb. miracle with downy dark hair and an adorable button nose. My son-in-law said I should do the honors — the obstetrician handed me the scissors, and I cut the cord, severing June from the warm, liquid world of her mother’s womb, and officially welcoming her Earthside.

But after her first breath, the newborn cry, that plaintive, sharp wail all parents wait for, didn’t come. The nurses took June from my daughter’s arms and continued to rub and stimulate her as she blinked in the glare of the bright room, but her blood oxygen levels remained concerningly low.

“We’re going to take her to the nursery,” one of the nurses said. My son-in-law followed. My daughter, unable to leave the bed because of the epidural, looked at me from across the room.

A chest X-ray confirmed a suspected pneumothorax, a condition in which air leaks into the space between the lung and the chest. Because we live in a small town with a small hospital, June would need to be transported to an NICU an hour and a half away. Watching my daughter and son-in-law say a tearful goodbye to their newborn was one of the most wrenching scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The next morning my daughter was discharged, and I drove her to see her baby girl at the hospital where my son-in-law already was.

The neonatal specialist assured them that the small hole in her lung would likely heal on its own, and three days later they brought June home. “Just forget this happened,” the doctor said. All signs pointed to complete health.

But I was in a tailspin that I couldn’t seem to pull out of. 

Those first weeks I’d come to their house on Friday, taking charge of June at midnight after my daughter nursed her, and giving her the 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. bottles, watching her mouth as she suckled, stroking her soft skin. Did I feel like her grandmother? I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel. Friends had described a dizzying happiness at being “in the best club ever.”

What I felt too much of was terror, deathly afraid of the small bundle I held, continually monitoring her rosebud lips for signs of a bluish tint, watching to make sure her chest was rising and falling, panicking when it seemed too long between breaths. The urge to tumble helplessly in love with my granddaughter was in full battle with the freshly resurfaced memories of the night my son died. I kept my fears to myself, not wanting to foist my unease on my already traumatized daughter and son-in-law, who were struggling to return to the normalcy of welcoming this new baby into their lives after her scary start. 

One afternoon, talking on the phone with a friend while driving in town, I heard myself say, “The doctors assured them the hole in her heart would heal.” There was a stunned silence as I realized what I’d said. “I mean her lung,” I said and hung up, pulling into a grocery-store parking lot where I sat with my face in my hands, weeping. In that moment, I knew I had a choice — release the dark grief or risk missing one of the most light-filled times of my life. 

“That was that baby,” I told myself. “This baby doesn’t have any holes in her heart. This baby is fine.” I offered myself a mantra to try. “That was then, this is now.” Whenever the old trepidation would rise, I’d repeat the words, reminding myself of the distance in years and reality between the death of my son and the life of this sweet, healthy baby girl. Gradually, my heart unwound.

One afternoon, while my daughter napped in the next room, I snuggled little June close and rocked her. I leaned down to listen to the sound of her quiet breathing, this time not from fear but wonder. She looked up at me with deep blue eyes rimmed with dark lashes and stared as if memorizing my face. Unable to look away, I let her hold me in the power of her wide-open gaze.

“The brighter spot is the heart,” my daughter had written to me all those months ago, and now baby June and I sat basking in the light of a love big enough to hold it all — yesterday’s grief, today’s joy, and all the beautiful and uncertain tomorrows. 

Outside, a soft breeze blew, and a shard of sunlight shot through the trees. I kissed my granddaughter’s forehead and began to sing.

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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Dracula — The Symbolism of Blood in the Novel “Dracula”


The Symbolism of Blood in The Novel "Dracula"

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Published: Jun 29, 2018

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Shelley, Mary. 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.' Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818.Stoker, Bram. 'Dracula.' Archibald Constable and Co., 1897.

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essay on fear of blood

Wrightsville Beach to host American Red Cross blood drive

Blood Drive

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WECT) - The Wrightsville Beach Public Safety Building is set to host a blood drive with the American Red Cross on Friday, May 31.

“Town employees from various departments will all be there to make a deposit in the bank that literally saves lives. We will be joined by citizens who have signed up through the Red Cross Webiste (see link below). The drive will be open from 11am until 4pm,” a town announcement states.

You can sign up for the blood drive online here.

Copyright 2024 WECT. All rights reserved.

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Guest Essay

How Iran and Israel Are Unnatural Adversaries

People hold up a photograph of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

By Karim Sadjadpour

Mr. Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“History is littered,” the British writer and politician Enoch Powell said, “with the wars which everybody knew would never happen.”

A full-blown conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel once seemed implausible. But last month, the long-running shadow war between the two nations burst into the open in a series of unprecedented drone and missile strikes, raising the specter of a fight that would contain enough advanced technology, paramilitary forces and mutual acrimony to incinerate large parts of the Middle East, collapse the global economy and entangle the United States and other major powers.

Now the two sides appear to have hit pause, but for how long? As long as Iran is ruled by an Islamist government that puts its revolutionary ideology before the national interest, the two countries will never know peace, and the Middle East will never know meaningful stability.

Iran and Israel are not natural adversaries. In contrast to other modern conflicts — between Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine, China and Taiwan — Iran and Israel have no bilateral land or resource disputes. Their national strengths — Iran is an energy titan and Israel is a tech innovator — are more complementary than competitive. The nations also have a historical affinity dating back over 2,500 years, when the Persian King Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. Iran was the second Muslim nation, after Turkey, to recognize Israel after its founding in 1948.

Their modern animosity is best understood through the lens of ideology, not geopolitics. It began with the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the dogmatic Shiite cleric who led the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran from a U.S.-allied monarchy into an anti-American theocracy. Khomeini’s 1970 treatise “ Islamic Government ,” which became the basis of the constitution that governs the Islamic Republic, is laced with tirades and threats against “wretched” and “satanic” Jews. Then, as now, antisemitism often lurked below the surface of anti-imperialism.

“We must protest and make the people aware that the Jews and their foreign backers are opposed to the very foundations of Islam and wish to establish Jewish domination throughout the world,” Khomeini wrote. “Since they are a cunning and resourceful group of people, I fear that — God forbid — they may one day achieve their goal and that the apathy shown by some of us may allow a Jew to rule over us one day.”

In the same manifesto, Khomeini casually advocates what in modern parlance is best understood as ethnic cleansing. “Islam,” he wrote, “has rooted out numerous groups that were a source of corruption and harm to human society.” He went on to cite the case of a “troublesome” Jewish tribe in Medina that he said was “eliminated” by the Prophet Muhammad.

Very few of the Iranian revolutionaries and Western progressives who backed Khomeini in 1979 — some of whom compared him with Mohandas K. Gandhi — had bothered to scrutinize his vision for Iran. Once in power, he built his newfound theocracy on three ideological pillars: death to America, death to Israel and the subjugation of women.

Over four decades later, the worldview of Iran’s current rulers has evolved little. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s 85-year-old successor and now one of the world’s longest-serving dictators, denounces Zionism in virtually every speech and was one of the few world leaders to publicly praise Hamas’s “epic” Oct. 7 attack on Israel. “We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in 2020, “who opposes and fights the Zionist regime.”

As Ayatollah Khamenei’s words make plain, the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the few governments in the world more dedicated to abolishing another nation than advancing its own. “Death to Israel” is the regime’s rallying cry — not “Long live Iran.”

Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime has backed this language with action. Iran has spent tens of billions of dollars arming, training and financing proxy militias in five failing nations: Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen. Together these groups constitute its so-called Axis of Resistance against America and Israel. These groups are elbow-deep in corruption and repression in their own societies, including illicit drug dealing and piracy , while pledging that they seek justice for Palestinians.

Hostility toward Israel is a useful tool for predominantly Shiite, Persian Iran to vie for leadership in the predominantly Sunni, Arab Middle East. But it should not be confused with concern for the well-being of Palestinians. In contrast to American, European and Arab governments that fund Palestinian human welfare initiatives, Iran has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into arming and financing Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Iran’s goal is not to build a Palestine but to demolish Israel.

And yet as much as the Islamic Republic is committed to its ideology, it is even more committed to staying in power. As the German American philosopher Hannah Arendt once put it, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution.” As its careful response to Israel’s recent military strikes on Iran showed, when faced with the possibility of full-blown war or existential economic pressure, Tehran tactically retreats.

After decades of living under an economically failing, socially repressive police state, Iran’s people long ago recognized that the greatest obstacle between themselves and a normal life is their own leadership, not America or Israel. In a 2021 public opinion poll conducted from Europe, only around one-fifth of Iranians approved of their government’s support of Hamas and “Death to Israel” slogan. Few nations have Iran’s combination of natural resource wealth, human capital, geographic size and ancient history. This enormous gap between Iran’s potential and its citizens’ reality is one reason the country has experienced numerous mass uprisings over the past two decades.

Iran’s Axis of Resistance has empowered right-wing Israeli politicians far more than Palestinians over the past two decades. The threat of a Holocaust-denying Iranian regime with regional and nuclear ambitions has stoked Israeli anxieties, diverted attention from Palestinian suffering and facilitated normalization agreements between Israel and Arab governments equally fearful of Iran. Indeed, Iran and its proxies were such a useful adversary that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helped prop up Hamas’s rule in Gaza until the deadly attacks of Oct. 7.

“The dream of Israeli leaders,” a retired Israeli general, Amos Yadlin, told me recently, “is to one day restore normal relations with an Iranian government.”

The dream of Iran’s Islamist leaders, on the other hand, is to end Israel’s existence. Israel’s conflict with Iran has been a war of necessity, but Iran’s conflict with Israel has been a war of choice. It won’t be over until Iran has leaders who put Iranians’ interests over Israel’s destruction.

Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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