Emetophobia: the phobia of vomiting

Emetophobia: the phobia of vomiting

By Jessica Brown

There are a lot of things throughout life that can be less than pleasant – that’s just part of being human. In order to cope, we put some life’s inevitabilities (illness, death, loss of loves ones) to the back of our minds. This is not the case for someone struggling with a phobia; where even irrational fears of everyday situations and objects can take over a sufferers’ life. Even the most articulate person would have difficulty trying to explain the intense terror experienced with phobias.

Phobias are exaggerated and unrealistic fears – but for those who have the phobia it can seem completely rational to be so afraid. Phobias can be debilitating, and can make living a normal life challenging.  Phobias can be caused or ‘triggered’ by traumatic events, but two people experiencing the same traumatic event may not both experience a ‘phobic’ reaction, it is therefore thought other social and genetic factors may play a part. There are hundreds of recognised phobias, and emetophobia, the phobia of vomiting, is one of them. 

Did you know that...?

  • Emetophobia is the fifth most common phobia, according to the International Emetophobia Society.
  • The number of emetophobes is unknown, but there is evidence that more women have a fear of vomiting than men. The closest estimation is that 1.7-3.1% of males and 6-7% of females suffer with emetophobia.
  • This phobia can intensify at certain periods in a sufferer’s life, and can also lay dormant for periods, too.
  • Many adult emetophobia sufferers can claim to have been vomit-free for 10 or 20 years or more.

Allie’s Story

Allie, 29, has suffered with emetophobia for as long as she can remember. She says that there are a few ways that the phobia could have been triggered. “I used to have a fear of hospitals, so it could have stemmed from that. Although, I remember being sick once at school and that may be where it came from. I got told off and told I should have gone home if I felt unwell, then I wouldn’t have vomited. I think the negative reaction I received from this had something to do with it.

Another possible trigger was a school camping trip, where most people in the camping site came down with a bug. Allie was 11 at the time, and remembers being scared of catching the it herself.

Although Allie still has some remnants of her phobia, she says it has diminished in recent years. “If I knew someone who had been sick, I was terrified of being sick myself. But now I can cope with that. I do still get apprehensive about it, but the phobia has diminished.”

She can recall two years ago when her housemate came down with a 24-hour bug. “She rang me to say she was on her way home. I grabbed things from my bedroom and shut the living room door. For the next week, she lived upstairs and I lived downstairs. I made her bleach every surface of the bathroom.”

This behavior may seem extreme to someone who doesn’t suffer with a phobia, but at the time, this was a completely rational response in Allie’s mind. “I had no sympathy”, she said. When asked how she would react now if the same situation were to arise and she had to be in contact with a sickness bug, she paused, and then replied “I don’t know”.

Like many phobia sufferers, Allie’s lifestyle was affected by an avoidance of taking any risks associated with possible vomiting. She didn’t go abroad for 11 years, for fear of being sick. Just last month, however, she took a trip overseas.

One aspect of emetophobia is the embarrassment of being sick in public. Allie says, “I work as a receptionist, and if I ever start to feel sick I panic because I can’t get away. This then turns into a panic attack.”

Like many sufferers of emetophobia, avoidance behaviours mean that Allie hasn’t been sick since 2005. She says, “I don’t know if the phobia will ever completely leave me, but at least it isn’t stopping me from doing things anymore”.

So what is emetophobia?

Emetophobia is the extreme fear of vomiting, and often the fear of seeing others vomit, too. Sufferers can sometimes avoid overeating and certain foods. They can avoid going abroad, watching gory films and stay away from anyone they know to have had a recent sickness bug.

In extreme cases, it can lead women to worry about pregnancy and morning sickness.  Some sufferers may also experience anxiety when people jokingly make retching noises, which is a common behaviour when talking about something disgusting. It can impact upon daily living with many sufferers adopting coping strategies that impede their lives, for example avoiding people or objects for fear of contamination.

Emetophobia can cause cyclic suffering – the thought of being sick can often lead people to feel sick, they may then start to panic and the nauseous feeling can intensify.

What causes it?

Emetophobia can arise from a childhood fear, perhaps an unpleasant experience of being sick, or the illness of oneself or a relative. It can intermingle with a general phobia of being unwell, or as in Allie’s case, hospitals. Some people may never pinpoint a specific trigger.

What is it like for sufferers?

The experience of emetophobia can vary from one person to another. It can preoccupy some people every day, but others may only see their phobia arise in certain situations. Sufferers can be overly compulsive when it comes to cooking meat, avoiding germs and cleanliness. Some may have a diet free from certain foods, and may abstain from alcohol and being around drunk people.

Some sufferers may experience obsessive or compulsive behaviour in order to avoid that which causes them panic. In extreme cases they may become housebound, or experience panic feelings when sending their children to school or other members of the household out to work; in fear they may bring contamination and sickness back into the home.

Sufferers often pay too much attention to their stomachs, and are therefore unable to distinguish between nausea and everyday gastrointestinal feelings. They can easily mistake hunger pangs, gas, heartburn, acid reflux and fullness as something more sinister.

What can be done?

As for any anxiety-related condition, counselling and self help are the methods that are most conducive to taking control of the phobia. Medication can sometimes be used short-term, to help the sufferer deal with the physical manifestations of anxiety, for example insomnia. Talking therapy can help to understand the phobia and cognitive behavioural therapy can begin to expose the emetophobic to previously avoided situations.

For sufferers whose phobias stems from a bad experience, some forms of councelling and other therapy, can allow them to interpret the event in a more positive way. This can allow the sufferer to move on from a traumatic time without struggling with the burden of misplaced fear.

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