Despite being fairly common, many people have never heard of emetophobia. We can clear that confusion up fairly quickly: it is a specific phobia (meaning a phobia of a particular object, action or scenario) characterised by an intense fear of vomit. What even fewer people grasp is the various ways emetophobia can present itself.
In this article, EmetoGo is shining a light on a version of emetophobia that doesn’t receive as much attention as the more common variant. Join us as we explore the symptoms, causes and treatments for those who fear seeing other people vomit.
Table of contents
- Different forms of emetophobia
- Fear of other people vomiting: triggers and symptoms
- What causes this form of emetophobia?
- How does it impact a person’s life?
- Fear of seeing other people vomit: treatments
- Overcoming your fear of seeing other people vomit
Different forms of emetophobia
Humans are complex beings. It makes sense, then, that the same phobia can impact people in different ways. Emetophobes usually fear some or all of the following:
- Feeling nauseous
- Watching or hearing other people vomit
- Being around sick people
- Vomiting in public
- Visiting environments where vomit may be present (like hospitals)
Large scale research into emetophobia remains fairly scarce, but judging from internet-based communities of emetophobes, the most common form of the phobia involves the individual being petrified of throwing up themselves. That is not to say that these people do not fear seeing others vomit too. In fact, more often than not they do. The main difference, though, is that the logic behind this is that their proximity to the sick person could make them ill as well. Thus, their chances of vomiting could be increased.
Today we want to focus on those who may not be particularly bothered if they vomit themselves, but feel extreme anxiety at the prospect of witnessing someone else do it.
Fear of other people vomiting: triggers and symptoms
As you might expect, those with emetophobia that concerns the behaviour of others rather than themselves experience slightly different triggers to those with more general emetophobia. Such triggers could include:
- Seeing someone vomit
- Hearing someone vomit
- Thinking about someone vomiting
- Being in close proximity to someone who is ill
- Being trapped in a vehicle or room with someone who looks queasy
- Witnessing someone cough, gag, burp or hiccup
When a person with this version of emetophobia is confronted by a trigger, it can set off a range of physical and emotional symptoms. You can see some of these in the table below.
|Physical symptoms||Emotional symptoms|
|ShakingSweatingIncreased heart rateNauseaDry mouthDizzinessTightness of the chestPanic attacksBlackouts||FearApprehensionDetachmentDisgustAngerStressShameGuiltHelplessness|
What causes this form of emetophobia?
Emetophobia is often caused by some kind of trauma in childhood or early adulthood (though genetics, learned behaviour and evolutionary responses can play a role too). The phobia may immediately appear following the traumatic event, or it can slowly develop over time as other life experiences influence how one processes the distressing memory.
In some cases, the memory may be so traumatic that the person has repressed it, meaning they are no longer conscious of its existence. Unfortunately, just because the brain prevents us from being aware of a particular memory, does not mean that it loses the power to impact our thoughts and behaviours in the present.
How traumatic memories shape our present
When it comes to phobias, the traumatic experiences that cause them will vary considerably from person to person. However, the specific feelings they evoke tend to fall into similar categories. Below we explore 3 emotions that are often tied to the root causes of emetophobia.
→ Loss of control. The scary thing about fearing other people vomiting is that you have no control over it. Not only is it a normal bodily function, but when it is happening in someone else you might not even get a warning sign before it occurs.
Example trauma: it is your 10th birthday and, out of the blue, your younger sibling vomits on your new dress.
→ Helplessness. In certain scenarios, you may not be able to escape a situation where someone may or has already vomited. In this case you would be trapped and forced to confront the subject of your fear.
Example trauma: you are on a school coach trip and the person next to you vomits. There are no spare seats and the teacher refuses to let you off the coach because it is travelling on the motorway.
→ Shame/humiliation. Phobias can be particularly hard to deal with when those around us do not understand the severity of the fear. Feeling misunderstood or like our struggles are invisible to those we love can be incredibly damaging to our self worth.
Example trauma: you are looking after a younger sibling who vomits when you push them to play a game as fast as you. You are shocked and don’t know what to do so you alert your parents, who become very angry and send you to your room.
When people with emetophobia are confronted by a trigger, it can activate the same thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that they experienced during the traumatic event that sparked their phobia in the first place. This is why, to outsiders, it can look like a massive overreaction to a minor situation.
Furthermore, without professional guidance, the person with emetophobia is unlikely to be aware that this process is happening. All they know is what they are feeling in the present moment, which is usually extreme anxiety.
How does it impact a person’s life?
In addition to the unpleasant symptoms that an emetophobe experiences when their fear is triggered, the phobia can have a negative long-term impact on how they live their lives.
This particular version of emetophobia gives other people a lot of power, as it is their potential behaviour that is most feared. As a result, individuals with this phobia tend to be hypervigilant in public, constantly monitoring their surroundings and looking for the best escape route, should the worst happen.
When venturing outside the home, they are likely to actively avoid any situation where vomit could occur. This puts a wide range of venues and events in the no-go zone, including pubs, clubs, festivals, cinemas, roller coasters, public transport and GP waiting rooms. Even those who are willing to go to restaurants, for example, may require tables that are far away from toilets, where they can see everyone else in the room. This kind of forward planning can become exhausting for both the individual in question and their companions.
Imagine feeling this on edge every time you left the house. Eventually, you might reach a point where it doesn’t seem worth going out in public at all. Indeed, some emetophobes develop agoraphobia (a fear of situations where escape or help is hard to find) or social phobia, as they become increasingly anxious about mixing with other people.
Missing out on important milestones
There are certain major life events that may be off limits for people with this form of emetophobia. Going to university, for example, is a milestone that many take as an opportunity to let loose and enjoy freedom from parents for the first time. However, in the eyes of an emetophobe this could look like a terrifying scenario of unknown living quarters with people who may be consuming copious amounts of alcohol. In other words, the risk of witnessing vomit and not knowing how to exit the situation seems reasonably high.
Another major life event that some emetophobes feel they cannot experience is creating a family. People with this phobia have to consider the fact that during pregnancy they would have to spend a lot of time in medical environments where sick people and vomit may be present. Once the baby is born, parents need to become accustomed to seeing and cleaning up vomit on a regular basis. For many with emetophobia, this can put them off having children altogether.
Grappling with guilt
A problem that many emetophobes bump up against is that nobody likes vomit. It can therefore be difficult for family and friends to take the phobia seriously. A lot of people find that their behaviour is brushed off as being oversensitive or dramatic. This can make it particularly hard when emetophobes feel the need to avoid family functions or celebrations for friends because they are worried about the potential for triggers. Not only are they missing out on important bonding experiences, but it can lead to conflict when loved ones feel rejected.
There’s also the issue of not being able to help those in need. Let’s face it, when someone is vomiting they’re usually not having a great time. When emetophobes are with friends or family who are sick, their anxious responses can make the person feel even worse. Rather than holding someone’s hair back or reassuring a child that they’re going to be OK, a person with this phobia is more likely to be running out of the door or having a panic attack. Many emetophobes report feeling guilty or embarrassed about their inability to help or provide comfort to those they love in such scenarios.
You can check out our article on dealing with sick loved ones for help with this specific issue.
Fear of seeing other people vomit: treatments
There are a few tips and tricks that you can implement to make life with this type of emetophobia slightly easier. Here are some gems of wisdom from the emetophobia community on Reddit:
- Download white noise apps to your phone so you can drown out any triggering sounds when you’re out in public.
- Always carry a smell that you find pleasant/relaxing with you to distract your senses in scenarios where you think you can smell sick. Anything from lavender to your favourite perfume will do!
- If you find yourself in an anxiety-inducing situation, try to locate the nearest window so that you can focus on what’s outside and take your mind elsewhere.
- Calmly explain to loved ones how your emetophobia affects you and be patient until they are able to understand.
- Try to remember how many times you have faced an uncomfortable situation and survived. Over time this internal reasoning can increase your confidence.
You can also check out our 5 self-help strategies for people with emetophobia.
If your emetophobia is making you feel significantly anxious and/or depressed, you should consult a medical professional. Doctors can prescribe various medications to manage your symptoms, including benzodiazepines (antianxiety) and serotonin reuptake inhibitors (antidepressants).
Please note that such medications may produce unwanted side-effects and are usually only prescribed on a short term basis. They are best used in conjunction with other treatments such as therapy.
There are many types of therapy that can help those with emetophobia, but two are particularly effective for those who fear seeing other people vomit.
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing. It is a therapy that focuses on uncovering the trauma behind a phobia. The client is first guided to a state of bilateral stimulation (usually eye movements), which acts as a distraction while traumatic memories are repeatedly revisited and reprogrammed. Eventually, the memory becomes less emotionally charged and can be processed in a more healthy way.
While popular therapies like CBT are great for managing the symptoms of a phobia, by shining a light on the root cause of your fears, EMDR can help you to overcome it altogether.
This type of therapy involves the client drawing up a list of actions and scenarios that they fear. Starting with the mildest, the client is then gradually exposed to each item on the list, whilst being provided with coping tools to manage their responses. For example, the initial sessions may focus on looking at an image of vomit, but the client can eventually build up to watching a video of someone vomiting. Taken at a steady pace, this repeated exposure results in the client becoming desensitised to the subject of their fear.
Exposure therapy works particularly well for this version of emetophobia, because the focus is already on something that is happening externally (which is not the case for those who fear being sick themselves).
Overcoming your fear of seeing other people vomit
Tired of living with emetophobia? EmetoGo can help. No matter what form of the phobia you have, our trained professionals can offer a range of therapies to help you manage your symptoms and maybe even overcome emetophobia for good.
We understand that reaching out for help can feel like a big step. Start small by filling out one of our contact forms. Simply tell us a bit about your phobia and one of our friendly therapists will be in touch with information on how we can support you in your journey to being free from fear.