No one likes to throw up, but for most people, vomiting is a temporary unpleasant experience. If you have emetophobia, however, the fear and dread associated with vomiting can take over your life.
You might find yourself avoiding places, situations, foods, shows, or movies because of this fear. You may even be struggling to read this blog post because the words are triggering.
The fear of throwing up can be so agonizing that it can contribute to significant interference with life. This could include missing work due to fears of being exposed to a sick colleague, having an inability to parent a sick child, or skipping important social activities where there might be heavy drinking.
To people without this fear, it often doesn’t make sense. In this post, I’ll try to shed some light on this fear by explaining common symptoms, triggers, and treatment.
What is emetophobia, the fear of throwing up?
Emetophobia is a severe fear of vomiting, seeing or hearing others vomit, and associated cues that go along with vomiting, for example hearing about a stomach bug or seeing someone who looks ill.
People with this fear feel intense anxiety, disgust, and sometimes anger when confronted with these sights, sounds, and smells. Their thoughts are often consumed with trying to avoid getting sick and seeing (or hearing) someone else getting sick. The fear is often overwhelming and can be associated with crippling apprehension. It often takes over, so that people feel consumed with this fear.
Emetophobia is diagnosed through a diagnostic interview with a trained clinician who will ask about beliefs, behavior, history, and experiences.
Clinicians will ask questions to assess for two main areas:
- Intense fear or distress (crying, fleeing, becoming upset or angry) when seeing, talking about, hearing, or experiencing vomit
- Efforts to avoid throwing up at the expense of missing out on important events, activities, and experiences
What are the symptoms?
Avoidance is one of the most common signs of emetophobia.
People with emetophobia often go to great lengths to avoid any situation where they might encounter vomiting. This avoidance can manifest in many ways:
- Dietary changes: Fear of food poisoning might lead to stringent dietary rules, excluding certain foods, or eating only from trusted sources. Buffet-style gatherings can be difficult.
- Social avoidance: They might avoid parties, gatherings, or events where alcohol is served, fearing someone might overindulge and become sick.
- Travel fears: The thought of motion sickness can make travel, especially by boat or plane, a nightmare. For parents, young kids who tend to get car sick can make road trips challenging.
- Health-related fears and avoidance: Hospitals or doctors’ offices, where the chances of encountering someone sick are higher, can become off-limits.
- Exposure to children: Because kids often get sick, people might avoid areas that are kid-focused, for example indoor play zones, schools, children’s museums, and amusement parks.
- Media and social media: Shows and movies can show vomiting, often without warning. This causes people to avoid consuming media for fear that there will be an unexpected trigger.
What are common triggers for fear of vomiting?
Other triggers that are more difficult to avoid include:
- People talking about being sick or throwing up
- Learning that people they know have the stomach flu or have gotten food poisoning
- Feeling full after eating
- Feeling physically ill, especially feeling nauseous, woozy, sweaty, or having heartburn
- Experiencing other illnesses like diarrhea, acid reflux, or intestinal bugs of any kind
The emotional and behavioral impacts of fear of vomiting
The combination of avoidance, external monitoring for triggers, and constant internal vigilance for bodily sensations is exhausting. The slightest hint of a trigger can set off a cascade of panic.
Persistent fears of vomiting can lead to other problems.
You may notice that you experience more isolation when your fear increases. Avoiding social situations, like family style BBQs, baseball games, going out to restaurants, or being around children means missing out on social events, which can lead to feelings of loneliness.
Symptoms of depression are common with emetophobia. The constant anxiety, combined with avoidance-driven social isolation, zaps energy and can cause you to do less. Being less active and engaged with life often leads to feeling down and depressed.
You might feel guilty about the perceived burden you place on loved ones or the events you miss out on. You might feel guilty that there are certain things you feel unable to do, like care for a sick child.
Emetophobia is also linked with shame. You might feel embarrassed about your phobia and believe you should be able to “get over it.” You might be afraid of judgment from other people who just don’t understand the significance of your fear.
What is the treatment for emetophobia?
There is good news when it comes to treating emetophobia! A specific form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically exposure therapy, can be effective in treating various phobias, including emetophobia.
This type of treatment helps you break down your fear into very small pieces so that you can gradually learn to face them, bit by bit. By practicing being around these things over and over, you learn that you can handle distress. You learn to trust that you can cope with anxiety.
One common question we get about exposure therapy is if we will force you to throw up as part of treatment. The answer is no!
First, we never force any of our clients to complete any exposures. For exposures to be helpful, they need to be mutually agreed upon and should be approached with willingness. “White knuckling” through a feared situation is not therapeutic.
Second, we have not found in our work (and there is no research to suggest) that throwing up is necessary to see improvement in your anxiety and your life.
For more information, you can read more about exposure therapy on our website.
If you’d like to learn more, Emetophobia Help is a great website with tons of specific resources where you can learn more about emetophobia.
You deserve to live without this shadow hanging over you. If you’re interested in learning more about treatment options, or if you have questions, please reach out to us.