My experience with emetophobia

* This post is quite different from the kind of thing I normally write.  I mentioned a few months ago that I suffer from emetophobia, and several of my readers told me that they’d be interested in reading about my experiences.  This is a topic that is really difficult for me to write about, so please keep your comments respectful.*

Emetophobia is the irrational fear of vomit.  For me, it presents itself as an intense fear of vomiting.  I am also afraid of seeing or hearing somebody vomit.  I cannot stand to be around vomit, and sometimes I even find it difficult to be in a room where I know that somebody has been sick.

For some emetophobes, even seeing or writing the word ‘vomit’ will bring on intense feelings of anxiety.  Although I don’t like doing it, I will use the word a bit during this post.  I apologise if that makes it difficult for you to read.  I force myself to use the word because for me, fear of the word increases the fear of the thing itself (thanks Dumbledore!)

I find it difficult to talk about my emetophobia, because it’s not a well-known phobia.  Many people are aware of phobias such as claustrophobia, but emetophobia is not widely spoken about, even though it is surprisingly common.  When I tell people about it, they will typically respond by saying, “Well, nobody likes being sick”, without really understanding that for me, it’s more than just a feeling of disgust that’s brought on by vomiting.  It’s a feeling of complete terror and paralysing anxiety.

I’ve always been sensitive to sickness.  When I was a little girl, I would always be nervous around people who were ill and I hated to see anyone vomit.  This feeling grew as I got older, but it never really affected my behaviour or generated too much anxiety.

I should point out that I haven’t actually thrown up since I was six years old.  However I am preoccupied with the fear that I might get sick.

The first time I remember feeling genuinely afraid was when I was fourteen. I was on a bus and a little boy threw up in the aisle.  I immediately started shaking, and screwed my headphones into my ears so that I didn’t have to hear anything.  I spent the whole trip home sitting with my body turned to the window, which I’d thrown wide open despite the cold, taking shuddering breaths of chilly air and willing myself not to cry.  My dad had to carry me off the bus because I couldn’t stand to step over the spot where they boy had vomited. When I got home, I took a long shower, scrubbing every part of myself raw.  I was still so wound up that I didn’t sleep that night.

My phobia got quite out of control while I was living at college.  I got food poisoning once and spent the entire time feeling terrified that I would throw up.  I think it was only through sheer willpower that I didn’t.  My anxiety was worse than the actual illness.  Even after I got better, I would constantly think I felt ill again, and my fear would bring on a panic attack.

I eventually went to the doctor to see if they could do something about my constant nausea.  The conducted a battery of tests, but found nothing physically wrong with me.  The only thing that was causing my nausea was anxiety.  It was a vicious cycle: I’d get anxious about getting sick, I’d misinterpret my anxiously churning tummy as nausea, I would get more anxious and more nauseated and the cycle would feed off itself.

I’ve lived with this fear for years.  It’s had it’s ups and downs.  I go through periods where the anxiety is intense and all-consuming, but there are times when it’s not as strong.  It affects my life in so many ways.  Here is a list of some of the most common ways it affects my living:

– I am intensely vigilant about hand-washing and personal hygiene.

– If I read on Facebook that one of my friends or their kids have gotten sick, I will instantly try to calculate my likelihood of catching their bug by thinking about how much contact I’ve had with them.  This can preoccupy my thoughts for hours.

– I often have trouble sleeping, because I worry that I will get ill during the night.

– I won’t eat certain types of foods, such as sushi.

– I dislike eating food that has been prepared by anyone other than myself.

– I have very specific cooking rituals.

– I find it very difficult to travel on public transport, for fear that myself or someone else will become ill.

– I avoid situations where people may become ill.  I don’t like pubs, parties where people are binge drinking or amusement parks.

– If I am out and I hear someone say they aren’t feeling well, or see someone who looks sickly, I will panic and try to avoid them.

– If someone mentions that they got food poisoning from a particular place, you can bet that I’ll never eat there.

– I won’t watch movies or T.V programs where people are shown vomiting.

– If I hear someone mention they’ve been sick, my blood will run cold.  This happens even if I’m reading a blog post written by someone on the other side of the world who I have never met.

– I’d much prefer to entertain friends at home than to go out to parties or pubs.

– Whenever I enter a new place, I automatically note the location of the bathroom (in case I have to be sick) and plan an escape route (in case somebody else becomes sick)

A few months ago, I read this post on Yes and Yes.  It resonated with me on so many levels.  Before this, I had no idea that emetophobia was even a thing.  I just thought that I was nuts.  It felt so good to be able to put a name to my fear, and also to realise that many people feel the same way I do.

At the moment, I feel as though I’m doing pretty well with the phobia.  It still affects my behaviour, but I don’t feel that it’s dominating my life and my thoughts as much as it used to.  My panic attacks still occur, but they’re less frequent.  I’ve had to work pretty hard to get to this point.  I still have days where I start panicking while I’m getting ready for the day, thinking “Is this it?  Is today THE DAY?”

If you’d be interested in hearing more about my experiences, let me know.  If you have any questions, I’d be happy to try and answer them.  Please keep all your comments and questions respectful.

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16 thoughts on “My experience with emetophobia

  1. Pingback: Things I Love Thursday 20/6/2013 | Nessbow

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  3. That’s so interesting, I wonder what causes this kind of phobia. Does this make you feel terrified to read about conditions such as bulimia? Glad to hear you are mostly winning the battle, it feels so good to conquer your fears. I have a fear of flying (garden variety I know) but I love travel so I force myself to fly regularly and it does get better with repeated exposure and anxiety preventing techniques. I also fear the ocean… so much dark water, kilometers deep… shudder!

    • I have no idea what causes emetophobia. For some people, their phobia can be traced back to a traumatic event, but that’s not the case for me. I can’t think of a single event that started my fear, or pinpoint a moment where the fear began. I do have a good idea of some of the things that can set me off though.

  4. “thanks Dumbledore!” <- amazing. Honestly, girl, you're SO BRAVE for posting this. You really are. I don't think my fear is quite as intense, but I do have a fear of vomiting as well. I won't share my stories… but I have a few. They've only intensified that fear for me. Having a wife who has vomited and having kitties who have hair balls, I've kind of learned to at least be around others while it's happening because, as I said, my fear is not that intense. In fact, Jen's is MUCH MORE intense than mine and so I try to shield her from anything that may make her nervous.

    My fear is more the fear of passing out. In fact, just moments ago I was lying on the bed, doing insane deep breathing (and huffing and puffing, no joke) trying to will myself not to pass out. Even TYPING this makes me feel as if any moment I'll black out… I can feel my hands and feet getting cold, black spots are in my eyes, etc. I *know* I won't… I'm just typing. But still. I FEEL IT. I've blacked out twice, neither time was even scary. But it's still a fear.

    I fear passing out in public especially. I find this especially true while standing in line somewhere, like at our local food bank, oh lordy. There is NO shade. I've had to literally lean against the brick wall, lean on a tree, crouch down like I'm taking a poo in the middle of a crowd, just to try and will myself not to pass out and I get comments like "oh god, are you okay?" etc. from worried crowd goers, which is kind of embarrassing, kind of sweet. I also have an insane fear of passing out in the shower… yet I rarely take baths. I'm afraid of passing out in the bath too! Ahhhh. Almost every single time I shower I have to crouch down, hold the rail and breath. Most often, the water does nothing to sooth me. If I drink too much, smoke too much or do nothing at all, I get the feeling.

    Since this is kind of a personal subject, I hope you won't mind me sharing, but… Whenever it's my time of the month, I get very ill. So I have to spend a lot of time relaxing and often in the bathroom (gah, TMI, sorry!) Anyway. I'll feel, again, that fear of passing out. I have to lie on the floor, or run cold water on my wrists, etc.

    If I'm sick, in pain, anxiety filled, etc… Feel like I'm going to pass out. It's horrible. So I totally get you!!!

    • Thanks so much for sharing this. While I don’t have the same fear of passing out, I can relate to a lot of the things that you’ve talked about. There are times when the thought “I’m going to be sick” pops into my head, even if I feel completely fine. I’ll then have to spend ages talking myself down, trying to convince myself that no, I’m not going to get sick, I’m totally fine. I get thrown into a panic if there is even the suggestion that someone around me is going to be sick. If my boyfriend’s stomach rumbles after dinner, I’ll freak out that he’s eaten something bad and he’s going to be ill. If I hear a kid in the street say that they don’t feel well, I panic. It’s pretty embarrassing that something so small can throw me into a tail-spin, but it does.

      I cannot stand it when Ross is ill. We’ve been together for nine years, and I’ve heard him get sick three times. Each time was utter torture (only compounded by the fact that I felt like a total monster for not being able to help the man I love when he’s feeling poorly).

      Oddly enough, I don’t get bothered when my cats are sick. I don’t like it, but I can see it happen and clean it up without any freak-outs.

  5. Oh my gosh this speaks to me in so many ways. I have agoraphobia ‘with panic disorder and social anxiety’. so for me, I get panic attacks and anxiety but it shows itself in the form of dizziness and feeling like I’m going to pass out in public. I have an extreme fear of places I can’t leave- so lines in a store. I think my biggest fear is the grocery store or a bank line. I totally know what you mean by ‘is this day THE day?’ I have never passed out in public from anxiety (although, I have in school, getting vaccines…probably where it started) but every single time I go to a big store or a busy place like a mall or something, I’ll worry that THIS time I will pass out.
    I really hope you continue healing from this, I know how anxiety and panic can completely control your life- even on good days. I’m currently on the waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which I’m hoping will be helpful. You should check it out and see if it’s something that might help you?
    *hugs*
    If you ever want to talk more about it, send me an email.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I also find it difficult to be in situations where I can’t ‘escape’ if myself or someone else gets sick. Public transport, grocery store lines and cinemas are all places that make me feel really uncomfortable.

      I’ve actually done some CBT to help me to deal with my anxiety and I found it extremely helpful. I’m thinking of doing a post soon about some of the techniques I use to manage my anxiety.

      Best wishes and good luck with your own journey. I really appreciate your support.

  6. Same! All the same. I’ve been through periods when I just feel too sick to eat out of anxiety, which makes everything worse. I also will not go to bed with a full tummy. i have to wait at least 4 hours. Last year my husband got food poisoning while we were holidaying in London and was being sick all night, it was absolute torture for me (and him I’m sure). I’ve known at least three other people with this fear, so it’s pretty common. I’m petrified.
    BUT. Even while I’ve had emetophobia, I’ve thrown up twice (my phobia developed maybe 11 years ago). And both times it was NOT awful. The fear leading up to it was awful, but then I was like “I was scared of this? Pish posh!” And then I cried at how dumb I’ve been. One time was actually from a panic attack on a plane by myself after eating nothing all day. The situation couldn’t have been worse! But I was totally fine after, even proud of myself weirdly.
    Thank you for writing about this. You’re not alone!

    • I forgot to write about how it affects my eating. Like you, there are times when I’ve been so afraid to eat anything, and then I get weak and nauseated from lack of food. I also go through periods where I will only eat a very limited range of foods that I feel are ‘safe’.

      Two years ago, my housemate got really ill with food poisoning. I was absolutely petrified, but I was proud of myself for being able to hold it together enough to help her out. My boyfriend drove her to the hospital, and I felt awful that I just couldn’t bring myself to go with them.

      I’ve heard from several people who have emetophobia that they’ve been sick and it wasn’t too bad. Like you, they’ve described feeling proud of themselves for getting through it. And you should be proud! It’s a big deal to face something that frightens you so much.

      • Another unfortunate effect is when I’m anxious about my tummy I can be really unpleasant to be around. I get short with people and shut down. I’m trying hard to work on acting normal, because it upsets my husband. It seems like I’m mad with him when I’m not!
        Does your anxiety impact on others too? It seems like you have it pretty well together…
        Thanks again for this post. I love your blog more and more! It’s one of the few ones I actually click through to on my feed to comment 🙂

      • My anxiety definitely impacts on my relationships with other people. It can be tricky for my friends because I’m really hesitant to go out to pubs or clubs, I’d much prefer to socialise at home. That’s fine, but it can be tricky when your friends want to actually go out, rather than staying home all the time. I found it really difficult to manage when I was living at college, because at the time I was really confused about how I was feeling, and I would isolate myself rather than go out.

        I think it’s been pretty tough for my boyfriend too. I also tend to get crabby and insular when I’m feeling especially anxious. We’ve been living together for a year, and during that time I’ve worked hard to communicate with him when I’m feeling anxious, rather than just bottling it up and snapping. He’s amazingly supportive and brilliant. But I also work on acting normal as well.

        Another thing that I find difficult sometimes is working. In addition to my blog, I have a part-time retail job. I go through periods where I am terrified that somebody will be ill in the store while I’m working, and I won’t be able to get away. Luckily, I’ve managed to explain a little about my anxiety to my boss and she is really understanding. I used to work in a huge department store when I lived in Melbourne, and my employers there weren’t as accommodating, so that made my job a lot more stressful.

        I’m so pleased that you enjoyed this post. I was really anxious about writing it, but I’m so glad that I pushed myself to share this. Thanks so much for your support.

      • Oh yes working! I’m a music teacher, so my students come in to a little practice room for a half hour lesson during school. Sometimes one of them will tell me they’ve been sick the past week or something (usually as an excuse for not practicing) and I will have to really control myself and act normal and try not to ask too many probing questions! But afterwards I have been known to wash my drumsticks in boiling water to get off the kid germs. And not eat for the rest of the day. Telling myself it’s irrational doesn’t help, it just makes me feel dumb.

        I’ve never been clubbing (I’m 25). I’m too freaked out to! Maybe one day I’ll hit the clubs and come home by 10pm 🙂

        I’d love to hear about any strategies for coping with anxiety. Mine all suck 🙂

      • I’ve got a post planned for next week in which I’ll talk about my anxiety-reduction techniques. They’re not foolproof, but they work for me (most of the time).

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