The chances are, unless you have it or someone close to you does, you won’t know that emetophobia is the extreme and irrational fear of vomit. Let’s be clear, it’s not just an ‘aversion’ to throwing up, its far worse than that. A phobia has the ability to take over your life, to tinge nearly every thought you have with fear and anxiety. Sufferers often feel a lot of embarrassment about their illness and go to great lengths to conceal it. Over the years I’ve learned that actually, the more people who know about my problem, the safer, happier and calmer I am. The more I openly acknowledge and express that side of me, the more I am able to reconcile it with the funny, smart, outgoing and warm person that I am, instead of feeling like I’m just a ‘neurotic nutjob’ with a humiliating secret. I am a person with a mental illness, and there’s no shame in that.
Anyway, I thought I would share a list of thoughts, experiences and behaviours that are typical for emetophobic people. Every emetophobic person is different, so please don’t assume that this is all true for all of us. I have experience with some, but not all of these examples, and have chosen not to specify which ones I have direct experience with, and which ones I have learned about through other sufferers. If you’re looking to understand this illness better, for a friend, partner or family member, I hope this list will help you. However, please be aware that I am a sufferer, not a professional, and this is a personal account. For information from a qualified professional, click here.
Content note to my emetophobic pals: For the sake of clear communication, I have used nearly every trigger word there is in this post, and obviously I am discussing our phobia in depth, which could also be triggering. There are images in this post, but none of them relate to illness.
12 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Emetophobia
1. We probably had a traumatic event involving vomit at some point in our lives. This will be the trigger for the phobia, and it can influence exactly what it is about vomit that we fear.
2. Some people are made phenomenally anxious by hearing words and phrases like ‘vomit’, ‘puke’, ‘food poisoning’, ‘nausea’. This creates an added stress that makes social interactions even more anxiety inducing.
3. Different emetophobics fear different things. Some fear themselves throwing up, some fear other people throwing up. Some people are fine with other people being sick as long as they know they can’t catch it. Some people have an extraordinary amount of anxiety about vomit but when they’re exposed to it, they cope perfectly well (and many others do not react this way at all).
4. We often restrict and closely control what, when and how we eat. This can range from starving ourselves when we fear being sick, to obsessively eating healthy foods to avoid it, and never eating out or at other people’s houses. Eating disorders or disordered eating are common misdiagnoses of emetophobia as the behaviours are so similar. Whether or not it’s helpful to be diagnosed with both has not been established.
5. We are also rarely heavy drinkers, and many emetophobic people are completely teetotal as well. Pressuring an emetophobic person to drink or do drugs can result in them experiencing a massive amount of anxiety too – yet another example of the evils of peer pressure.
6. During winter in particular, we can show symptoms similar to agoraphobia (the fear of leaving one’s safe space) because we are worried about catching bugs. The reason it’s worse in winter? Norovirus. For many emetophobes, the winter months are plagued by the relentless stories of vomiting outbreaks in schools, hospitals and local communities. It can be utterly unbearable.
7. Rashes, dryness and even nerve damage are par for the course if you’re the skin on an emetophobic’s hands. Most emetophobes engage in excessive hand washing, overuse of hand gels, using too-hot water to wash with and even going so far as to pour surface cleaners over our skin in a bid to eliminate germs. This, combined with washing utensils, surfaces, door handles, phones, everything, is why emetophobics are also often misdiagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
7. Our anxiety can get pretty amazingly bad, and it goes from 0-60 in no time at all. Often, all you need to say is ‘I don’t feel good’ or ‘I think that milk I used in your tea was sour’ and we’re off. It’s a horrible feeling that frequently comes out of absolutely nowhere, and it’s really, really hard to come back from. Self-soothing techniques are incredibly hard to learn, especially since it’s a poorly understood illness, so it’ll often go on for a day or more, particularly if we aren’t lucky enough to have someone in our lives who knows what not to say, or how to comfort us.
8. Because of this and the lack of medical knowledge (and therefore poor access to help) about emetophobia, many people end up developing unhelpful coping techniques. I’ve already mentioned a lot of them above (food restrictions, hand washing etc) but other ones include drinking grape juice or taking activated charcoal when they feel they’ve been exposed to a sickness bug, or drinking alcoholic or extremely hot drinks to try and kill germs in our stomachs.
9. We are also aware of the absurdity of many of the things we do – believe me, it never needs to be pointed out, unless you’re extremely close to the emetophobic person, you have a good understanding of mental health in general and you know what their triggers are.
10. Close encounters with vomit can actually leave emetophobics severely traumatised, so it’s important never to assume that we’ll be ‘cured’ if we throw up, or watch someone else throw up. Life happens of course, and most of us do accept that it’ll feature in our lives at some point. We just prefer not to talk, or think about it.
11. Some emetophobics are unable to live the life they want, be it not travelling, not having kids (for women especially due to the amount of vomit that tends to be involved in a typical pregnancy) or not having the social life they may have enjoyed otherwise.
12. This all being said, many of us do manage to develop amazing control over our panic attacks, tortuous anxiety and obsessive behaviours. Personally, I know that I am still very unwell, but I’ve overcome a lot of the things on this list through years of constant hard work. I know I have definitely not suffered as much as many other people with the disorder, but I have been through periods where I was really, really struggling to cope.
I hope this list has been informative for you, and that you are able to understand how someone can live with this and still be a worthwhile, valued member of society, who is worthy of your patience, kindness and love.