What It's Like to Have a Pathological Fear of Vomiting
As the train doors opened, I actually threw up in my hand. It wasn't even a small amount—we're talking projectile vomiting. Shortly after that, I hyperventilated so much that I passed out.
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As I'm sat here typing this I have a small voice in my head willing myself to not be sick; I try not to think about it too much and start to feel that all too familiar lump form in my throat. Just the very thought of being sick or anything to do with sick makes me, well, a little bit sick.
I have a mild form of emetophobia, which is an extreme phobia of vomiting. It can also include a fear of seeing—or hearing—others throw up and a fear of choking. Sure, it's pretty standard for everyone to dislike puke or being sick. But, according to Lorna Denton, a psychotherapist and mindset coach and a former emetophobia sufferer for nearly 30 years, "It only starts becoming a phobia when a person feels a disproportionate level of fear when they think about vomiting. They'll also start to engage in lots of avoidance behaviours such as not drinking alcohol or eating certain foods in an attempt to make sure they aren't sick."
Surprisingly, emetophobia is a condition that's not widely diagnosed even though it's a fairly prevalent anxiety disorder. Anxiety UK states that around 7 percent of the female population and 3 percent of the male population suffer from this specific phobia.
Despite being a fairly common anxiety disorder, many people don't know about its devastating effects. "It is almost always coupled with generalized anxiety, which includes a fear of traveling and extreme obsessive cleanliness," Denton says, "it can also bring on agoraphobia, claustrophobia and eating related issues."
For some, however, the thought of vomit is so terrifying that it would affects them mentally and physically. "Emetophobia can sometimes trigger panic episodes that can last from a few hours to several days," Denton adds. "In worst case scenarios, it can even lead to delaying pregnancy and forgo having children altogether due to anxiety surrounding morning sickness or their ability to care for a sick child."
Philippa Willitts has been suffering from emetophobia for almost 30 years. Things got so bad during her teens that she was diagnosed with an eating disorder because she was so afraid to eat and risk the chance of vomiting food back up. "I've had it for many years before realizing what it was," she says. "I could barely even eat because I was so afraid of throwing up. I would obsess so much about whether I felt ill or not, that I thought I must be a hypochondriac for a long time."
No one knows the real cause of emetophobia, but like most phobias, the fear of vomiting can often be traced back to early childhood. Emetophobia has been linked to low self esteem and high levels of perfectionism, but most of the time it's down to the fear of losing control. "It tends to affect women more than men," Denton says, "with the majority of emetophobes who consult me being roughly 95 percent female aged between 18 to 24. Women are more likely to suffer from it due to a higher 'level of disgust' propensity. They are more likely to feel disgusting or worry others how others will perceive them if they get sick."
As a small girl, I'd wake up and panic throughout the night worrying that I'd be sick.
One of those women sufferers include yours truly. A few of years ago, one of my worst nightmares actually came true: I was getting the tube home, and the combination of swaying back and forth on the train carriage—mixed with the pounding anxiety of willing myself not to be sick in public—proved too much. I desperately tried to clamber off to safety at the next stop, but as the doors opened, I actually threw up in my hand. It wasn't even a small amount—we're talking projectile vomiting. Shortly after that, I hyperventilated so much that I passed out. But compared to other emetophobes, my tale of woe seems rather tame.
Angela Smith has been an emetophobe for over 40 years. "As a small girl, I'd wake up and panic throughout the night worrying that I'd be sick," she says. "Traveling on planes is almost impossible for me, as there's always the possibility of turbulence and that could make you feel or be sick. There was one point when my phobia got so bad that I wouldn't go anywhere without my ginger, probiotics, and sickness tablets."
One woman, Katrina Fouracre is battling her phobia while expecting her first child. "Since becoming pregnant, my fear is at its worst," she says. "I was always concerned about morning sickness and wondered how I would cope with that. My fear has taken me to when the baby is born, when they get older and they start going to school where they'll pick up bugs. How will I be able to cope with a child being ill and how do I ensure that I won't be affected? But as I grow bigger each day, I'm learning to deal with whatever happens."
There is no miracle cure for emetophobia, but the level of distress can decrease over time with the correct treatment and guidance. "Because this is a form of mental illness, cognitive therapies are often very successful treatments," Denton says. "I help people by teaching them practical techniques they can use to manage get their thinking to get some perspective over their worries."
What makes emetophobia such a difficult anxiety disorder is that you're in a constant battle with your digestive system, and your thoughts about throwing up are constant and intrusive. "Many emetophobes have a hard time distinguishing between nervous-related nausea or being actually sick," Denton explains, "meaning a person finds it near impossible to relax and forget about it."
Setting emetophobia apart from other phobias, you won't be able to guarantee what happens creating a constant day-to-day worry. For Fouracre, this is a work in progress. "I try my hardest not to let it take over my life. When I have feelings of nausea, I have a routine that I carry out to stop me from being sick and to pass the feeling. I run my hands under cold water and if possible, try to get fresh air, by either opening a window or going outside this gives me a psychological sense of safety. Right now, I'm working hard to try and not let it consume my thoughts."