You may not have heard of emetophobia but, chances are, you’ve met someone who has it in some form. Emetophobia refers to an intense fear of vomiting. As this is a topic not many people want to discuss in social situations, those with emetophobia often suffer in silence.
In this article, EmetoGo covers all of the important details you should know about emetophobia. We’ll explain symptoms, causes, treatments and much more…
What is emetophobia?
Emetophobia is what is known as a specific phobia, because it is a phobia of a particular object, action or scenario. In this case it is the action of being sick, or anything that may relate to or cause such a response.
As a result, people with emetophobia experience extreme fear around any or all of the following:
- Seeing vomit
- Watching other people vomit
- Being ill
- Feeling sick in public
- Being out of control when sick
- Visiting locations where vomiting may occur (like a hospital)
Emetophobia is a particularly tricky phobia to navigate because the thing feared is a normal bodily function. At some point, then, individuals with the condition will be forced to face their fear. After all, everybody gets sick at some point in their lives. Furthermore, as vomiting is a natural (albeit very unpleasant) response to certain triggers, it is often depicted in television shows and films and is a common symptom of major life experiences like pregnancy.
How common is emetophobia?
When does it develop?
Although emetophobia can present itself at any time in a person’s life, as with many phobias, it is most likely to develop during childhood or adolescence. It is often linked to other conditions such as OCD and anxiety, which may distract from the emetophobia itself.
When it comes to phobias, you must take into account both the immediate symptoms that present when an individual encounters the subject of their fear, alongside the avoidant behaviours at play. We’ll take a look at both below.
When people with emetophobia confront the subject of their fear it causes intense anxiety. This can produce a range of emotional and physical symptoms, including:
- Digestive issues
- Panic attacks
In some cases, even discussions of vomiting or feeling sick can begin to trigger these symptoms.
It may come as a surprise that, in some cases, fear itself is not the most serious or debilitating symptom of emetophobia. Rather, it is what people will do to avoid experiencing this fear that really has a negative impact on their everyday life. With emetophobia in particular, a lot of this avoidant behaviour is obsessive in nature. For example, a person may excessively wash their hands, spend hours disinfecting surfaces and only eat certain “safe” foods to prevent contact with germs that could make them ill.
Those with severe emetophobia often also limit their social interactions. Beyond avoiding hospitals, they may refuse to take public transport or enter public spaces altogether. The logic behind this would be to protect them from picking up illnesses from others. It also reduces their chances of being sick in public. Whatever the motive, cutting social activities in this way can have a very detrimental effect on one’s mental health.
Emetophobia that develops during childhood or adolescence is usually caused by some kind of traumatic event or experience. It is notoriously difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of irrational fears because, in many cases, trauma is repressed. Instead, it presents itself as something else (in this case, the phobia). Certain forms of therapy will look to uncover the specific trauma that is fuelling the fear response.
As some people develop phobias in later life, experts also believe that they can have a genetic, learned or even evolutionary component:
- Some individuals are predisposed to be more anxious than the average person due to their genes.
- People may develop a phobia if they witness an influential person in their life exhibiting extreme responses to particular stimuli. It is not uncommon for parents to pass their emetophobia on to their children.
- Certain phobias may be linked to an evolutionary response that has not been unlearned. For example, early humans did not know about the need for sanitation or have access to medicines, so vomiting could have been a sign that someone was close to death and thus should be avoided.
As emetophobia is a specific phobia, it can often be pretty obvious that you have it, so you might not need an expert to confirm this. If you are suffering, though, you may find it helpful to seek information and guidance from a GP. Be aware that you are only likely to receive an official diagnosis if your phobia is having a significant impact on your daily life. As a general rule, health professionals label a fear as a phobia when symptoms have been present for at least 6 months. Some people may find that their emetophobia is initially diagnosed as OCD, social anxiety or generalised anxiety disorder, as this is how it can present.
Please note that a professional diagnosis is not required to access treatment for emetophobia (unless you prefer to take the NHS route). A simple consultation is all therapists need to provide effective treatment for emetophobia.
The good news is that those with emetophobia are not stuck with the condition. While it is not always possible to completely cure it, there are many treatments that allow people to successfully manage their emetophobia symptoms. The two main treatment avenues are therapy and medication.
There are many different types of therapy and those in the business tend to specialise in more than one approach. Some of the most common techniques to target phobias include:
Exposure therapy is particularly effective when it comes to treating phobias, but it can be a daunting process for the client. It involves a patient gradually being exposed to more extreme versions of the thing they fear. For example, they may initially be asked to look at a picture of vomit, and then after a few weeks build up to watching a video of someone vomiting. This is carried out at a pace that suits the individual, and they are provided with a range of coping mechanisms to handle the anxious responses that are triggered. Repeated exposure results in a systematic desensitisation towards the subject of the phobia.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
During CBT, the patient is made aware of the thinking processes behind the negative behaviours and emotions that are triggered by their phobia. By recognising and separating feelings, thoughts and actions, a person can retrain their brain to respond to potential triggers in a healthier way. This approach is really useful in helping someone with emetophobia manage their symptoms.
Hypnotherapy involves the patient being guided into a trance-like state in which their subconscious is more accessible. The therapist is then able to take advantage of the fact that the client is more open to suggestion and talks them through how to reframe the way they view the subject of their phobia. Some people favour this approach because it is easier to discuss their fears when they are in a safe, relaxed environment.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
This therapy style focuses on the trauma at the root of a phobia. During EMDR, the patient experiences a form of bilateral stimulation (often eye movements) to distract them from the intensity of what is being discussed. Once this is taking place, a traumatic memory is repeatedly explored until it is possible for the patient to reprogramme the way the memory is processed by their brain. This eventually removes any negative symptoms it triggers.
For severe cases of emetophobia, certain medications may be prescribed on a short term basis to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety or depression caused by the phobia.
- Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI—antidepressants)
- Benzodiazepines or beta blockers (antianxiety)
- Gastrointestinal medications may be used in cases where symptoms like nausea are exacerbating the fear response.
Help for those with emetophobia
Emetophobia may not be widely discussed, but it has a major impact on the lives of many people across the UK. It’s important to know that there is no need to resign yourself to a life of fear and avoidance. You are not alone and support is available.
At EmetoGo we provide a range of therapies to help you take back control of your life and start living phobia-free. Head to our homepage and fill out a contact form to take the first step today.