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What Causes a Fear of Vomiting?

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Image source: Zohre Nemati (via Unsplash)

Understanding the root cause of a phobia can go a long way towards helping us overcome it. Some specific phobias can develop after a traumatic event or experience, while others can seemingly emerge without a clear cause. So, what exactly causes a fear of vomiting?

In this article, we’re going to explore the various factors that can contribute to the development of emetophobia, including trauma, learned behaviour and even genetics.

How did I become an emetophobe?

A fear of vomiting may emerge as a result of a traumatic experience as early as childhood, or it can seem to develop out of nowhere. Once it starts, however, it can have a crippling effect on someone’s day-to-day life.

People who suffer from emetophobia often try to avoid situations and things that have the potential to trigger their fear. This could mean restricting their diet to ‘safe’ food types that won’t result in nausea, avoiding the consumption of alcohol or medication that can cause nausea, checking expiration dates, and even avoiding social venues where alcohol might be consumed.

Though the exact symptoms for emetophobia will vary depending on the individual, one thing is clear: it is a phobia that can severely affect an individual’s quality of life. 

So, what causes it?

The causes of emetophobia

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Image source: Bradyn Trollip (via Unsplash)


Emetophobia can start to develop after a traumatic experience with vomiting. Whether it’s a severe stomach bug or a bad hangover, if the experience is agonising or debilitating enough, it can cause an individual to fear vomiting as a way of protecting themselves from having to undergo it ever again. 

It’s not necessarily the act of vomiting that can cause this phobia to develop. If the individual associates a strong emotion with the event, such as embarrassment, sadness or disgust, it can be enough for them to want to avoid ever experiencing it again. As an example, throwing up in public can be a humiliating experience that can trigger a fear of vomiting. 

An individual can also develop this phobia after watching someone else vomit. An example of this can be found in a 2012 study of a 46 year old woman, Debbie, who had been suffering from emetophobia for as long as she could remember. During Debbie’s first EMDR session, she was able to trace back her fear to a traumatic experience at the age of four, in which her “classmate vomits all over the table”. 

A lack of familiarity

Most adults will have experienced vomiting multiple times during their childhood due to their heightened sensitivity to “vomit-inducing stimuli”. Though this doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, it can help people grow accustomed to the experience. 

Individuals who rarely threw up during their childhood, however, can grow up to fear the act of vomiting due to a lack of familiarity with the process. 

Observational learning

Specific phobias can also develop as a result of observational learning. Children, for example, can learn to fear things by watching other people exhibit signs of fear in certain situations. For example, a child growing up with a mother who is afraid of heights may start to develop acrophobia. 

According to Milosevic et al, this “transmission of fear comes about in two ways. First, children acquire the message that particular stimuli are dangerous—even if their parents never say so. And second, children are denied the opportunity to be exposed to these stimuli and see that they are not that frightening.” 

Worried about your child learning to fear vomit from you? We have an article covering 3 steps you can take to avoid passing your emetophobia on to your children.

Informational learning

Individuals can also develop specific phobias through hearing about negative experiences. In a 2016 study into aerophobia (a fear of flying), Wang et al found that information presented by the media can have a significant effect on people’s anxiety and general fear towards flying. 

What this means is that an emetophobe could have developed their fear after reading an online article, watching the news, or even listening to a secondhand account about a particularly severe case of vomiting. 

Lack of control

Some researchers believe that a fear of vomiting is linked to a deep-rooted concern about losing control. People who try to manage themselves and their surroundings dread the prospect of vomiting because it opposes their sense of control. The idea that they might throw up out of nowhere, in a public space, is extremely distressing. 

In a 2007 study involving 51 emetophobes, Boyle et al explored the link between control and the fear of vomiting. They concluded that these individuals generally believed that events were within their control and found it difficult to “relinquish this control during the act of vomiting, thus inducing a phobia”. 


Some individuals with emetophobia have been found to have high levels of comorbid anxiety disorders (Sykes et al), which suggests that a predisposition to anxiety could be a contributing factor to their phobia, or a secondary symptom. 

Research from Boschen suggests that emetophobia is a result of a general anxiety vulnerability factor, in addition to: 

  • A tendency for symptoms of nausea to arise due to one’s anxiety
  • A tendency to panic and misinterpret this nausea
  • Hypervigilance to any signs of nausea

In other words, emetophobia could start with general anxiety and gradually escalate to the point where individuals misinterpret their nausea as a sign that they’re going to vomit—which leads to a never-ending loop of anxiety leading to nausea, nausea leading to a fear of vomiting, and a fear of vomiting leading to increased anxiety. 


An individual’s fear of vomiting may even stem from their genetics. Though a specific phobia gene hasn’t yet been discovered, research suggests that “variants in several genes may predispose an individual to developing a number of psychological symptoms and disorders, including specific phobia”. 

How can I get help?

Whether your fear of vomiting is a result of childhood trauma, learned behaviour, or a complete mystery, there is a way for you to overcome it. 

EmetoGo has a team of specialists who provide a range of therapeutic approaches, both online and in person, to treat emetophobia. To start your journey towards a life without limits, get in touch with us today.