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5 Ways to Deal With Sick Loved Ones When You Have Emetophobia 

Child's hands on top of adult hands
Image source: Liv Bruce (via Unsplash)

One of the things that makes life with emetophobia so tough is the impact it can have on your relationships. It’s one thing having to worry about yourself getting sick, but when loved ones fall ill, a number of additional obstacles can arise. You might worry about:

  • Having to witness them being sick
  • Catching whatever illness they have
  • Offending them with your response

It is this last worry that can be particularly hard to navigate. Being in proximity to someone you love when they are sick can involve grappling with emotions like fear, disgust, anger and guilt. After all, these are the same people you may rely on for help with your anxiety, so it’s hard to feel like you cannot reciprocate that same level of care.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to make this problem a lot more manageable. Below we cover 5 approaches to helping sick loved ones when you have emetophobia. Let’s get started!

1. Dealing with… Family

We’ll begin with what are likely to be the first relationships in your life that presented this problem. A big part of how you deal with this situation depends on how understanding your family members are in regards to your phobia.

If you’re lucky enough to have a parent that takes your emetophobia seriously, it’s a good idea to establish some ground rules before anyone falls ill. For starters, if they do get ill, would you want them to tell you? Or, would you rather they do their best to hide it from you? As the latter option can be tricky (especially if you’re living under the same roof), it’s usually safer to go with option 1.

To make this situation more manageable for you, consider establishing a code word that they can use. For example, instead of saying she’s sick, your mother might say, “today could be a purple day”. This would be your cue to set in motion any self-care tactics you have to deal with triggers.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own room, establish it as a personal safe space for yourself. Decorate it with things that make you feel calm and happy. Even if there are times when a parent or sibling’s illness forces you to confront triggers, just knowing you have this place to return to will be comforting.

If your family have a habit of downplaying or ignoring your phobia, look to outside support networks to get you through the particularly tough moments. This could be anything from an online support group, to a professional therapist. Even a quick call (or visit!) to a friend can make a world of difference.

2. Dealing with… Partners

Romantic relationships require us to be vulnerable, so hopefully your partner is aware of and sympathetic towards your struggle with emetophobia. This doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy when they get ill. If you’re at a stage where you cannot be around people who are sick, it is ok to remove yourself from the situation to protect your own wellbeing. Give them space to rest and recover, and assure them that you look forward to reuniting when they are feeling better.

Of course, there is a good chance that this response could make your partner feel hurt. In these situations, you should find ways to show that you care that don’t involve you being with them in person. For example, you can check in with them frequently via phone or text to show that you are thinking about them—although you might want to request that they keep details to a minimum!

You can also go the extra mile and get food, drinks, or gifts for them that you can leave at their door. Thoughtful gestures like this can remind them that your desire to keep your distance is no reflection of how much you value or love them.

If you live with your partner and leaving is not an option, you might want to sleep in another room or on the couch for the duration of their illness. This has the double benefit of keeping you away from their germs and giving them more room to relax and heal. You can also take productive steps like opening windows and staying on top of the cleaning to keep yourself busy. Try not to let these behaviours become obsessive, though, as it may increase the severity of your phobia and make your partner feel even worse.

The upside to living with someone who is ill is that it can provide some much-needed exposure therapy. Watching someone you care about deal with and overcome something that terrifies you is a reminder that your perception does not necessarily match reality. Take this opportunity to reframe your thoughts around illness, if you can.

Want to get a head start on this? Follow our at-home exposure therapy guide.

3. Dealing with… Children

Adult and child holding hands walking on beach
Image source: Szilvia Basso (via Unsplash)

Having a child is a big responsibility, and part of that responsibility is caring for them when they’re sick. In most cases, people who are ill should do the polite and responsible thing and stay away from others. However, if it is your child that’s in this situation, you’re going to have to step up.

A fact that you might find comforting is that many emetophobes claim that having children pushed them to overcome their fear. Indeed, some report that maternal or paternal instincts kick in and illness is easier to confront when it’s your own child. This then makes dealing with sickness in other people less daunting.

If that’s not the case for you, though, there are a couple of things to consider. As sickness in children can present itself quite suddenly, your knee-jerk reaction may be to run away when it happens. If this occurs, try not to beat yourself up about it. Unless your child is in immediate danger (make sure they are not at risk of choking) you can take a few seconds to breathe, compose yourself, and adjust to the situation (more tips on this in part 5), before returning.

That being said, the fear reaction is something you should work to minimise around your children. Phobias can be the product of learned behaviours, so if you repeatedly respond with fear or a desire to escape when they are sick, you could pass on your emetophobia to them. You know how limiting this phobia can be, so rather than feeling guilty, use this as motivation to overcome your own emetophobia, for the sake of your children.

It’s also useful to keep in mind that children tend to be more susceptible to sickness bugs than adults. Their immune systems are still developing and they do not stick to the same hygiene standards as grownups. If your emetophobia is largely focused on a fear of becoming ill yourself, you can take comfort in the fact that you are unlikely to catch something off your children.

4. Dealing with… Friends

Just like partners, close friends should be able to accept your phobia and understand that any seemingly insensitive actions on your part should not be taken personally. As we explained in part 2, making the most of technology and modern day conveniences to make your friends feel seen and cared for is a good way to respond when they are under the weather. Send them a care package and stay in touch over the phone to show that you are thinking about them.

Worried that you may have caught an illness from your friend? This is understandable if you’ve spent time with them recently. If getting ill is something you worry about generally, chances are you’re a very clean and conscientious person. Add to this the fact that not all sickness bugs are contagious, and it becomes very unlikely that you will get ill yourself just from being in close proximity to someone who later became ill. If you find yourself getting stuck in a thought pattern about this, follow some of the tips in the next section.

Finally, in regards to non-close friends or acquaintances who get sick, unless you are their only form of support, it is acceptable to remove yourself from the situation. For example, you may be on a night out when someone has too much to drink and becomes sick. As long as they have someone responsible and trusted to help them, you can say your goodbyes (or not!) and leave. While avoidance isn’t a tactic you should use frequently, in some cases it may be the best response.

5. Dealing with… Anyone

Wooden scrabble letters spelling out "pause", "breathe" and "resume".
Image source: Brett Jordan (via Unsplash)

To round off our list, let’s cover some coping tips and tricks that you can use when dealing with anyone who is ill.

  • Preparation is key: You might not get much warning before a loved one is sick. Practise a calming mantra you can say to yourself when such occasions arise. Something like, “I can power through this discomfort”, or “This feeling is temporary” can be effective.
  • Take a deep breath: Breath work can reduce anxiety symptoms and stop your mind from spiralling. Try box breathing: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and repeat.
  • Carry mints: The smell of mint distracts your senses and reduces nausea. Always carry some on you so that you can whip them out in times of need. Sucking on mints is also a good self-soothing method.
  • Find comfort in community: Sometimes the people close to us aren’t able to understand the impact emetophobia can have on your life. Avoid feelings of alienation by searching for groups of people who know what you’re going through. There are various forums and communities to be found online.
  • Take time for yourself: Even in situations where you have no choice but to care for or comfort a sick person, try to sneak some brief moments of solitude where you can to collect yourself. Offering to collect medicine or go to the shop for a sick person can give you an opportunity to put some space between you and the triggering situation.
  • Get therapy: Illness is something you’re going to have to deal with at various points in life, whether it’s you or someone you are close to. In order to protect your mental wellbeing it is important to build up a resilience to potential triggers. Working with a therapist is the easiest and most effective way of achieving this goal.

That concludes our tips on how to deal with sick loved ones when you have emetophobia. For more advice on navigating relationships when you have emetophobia, check out our article on how to establish boundaries.

Want to talk to a professional about your emetophobia? Our sister site ManageMinds offers flexible online therapy, so you can talk to someone from the comfort of your own home. Start with a single session or a free 15-minute phone consultation.