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Emetophobia and Panic Attacks

Person holding their head in their hands
Image source: Simran Sood (via Unsplash)

For someone with emetophobia, the sight, sound or even discussion of vomit can cause them to feel a great deal of distress. This presents itself in emotional and physical symptoms ranging from fear and dread to sweating and shaking. Sometimes, a particularly bad trigger can cause people with phobias to experience a number of very intense symptoms all at the same time, constituting a full-blown panic attack.

In this article, EmetoGo explains what panic attacks are, how they may impact people with emetophobia, and what you can do to prevent or treat them.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack (also referred to as an anxiety attack) is an extremely heightened version of your body’s fear response. When your brain detects some kind of threat, it signals for the body to produce adrenaline, the chemical that fuels our fight or flight response. Adrenaline provides energy and makes us more alert, but it also increases feelings of anxiety and is linked to symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing.

During a panic attack, this process happens so quickly and acutely that it completely overwhelms the person. As you can imagine, it is an extremely unpleasant experience. Thankfully, though, panic attacks rarely cause any long term harm. According to the NHS:

“Although panic attacks are frightening, they’re not dangerous. An attack will not cause you any physical harm, and it’s unlikely you’ll be admitted to hospital if you have one.”

One of the more alarming aspects of panic attacks is that they are hard to predict and may even occur for no discernible reason. However, panic attacks linked to phobias are usually caused by a noticeable trigger, e.g., eating food that it later emerges has passed its expiry date.

What do they feel like?

The main symptoms of a panic attack are very similar to the reactions emetophobes have when confronted with their fear. As we’ve explained, though, what makes it an ‘attack’ is the fact that lots of symptoms are happening simultaneously and it comes on very rapidly. This means that in a short space of time, a person could experience a distressing combination of the following:

  • Short, shallow breaths
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Pins and needles
  • Ringing in ears
  • Dry mouth
  • Strong sense of dread

These attacks tend to last between 5 and 20 minutes, but some can last over an hour. Panic attacks may also involve more extreme symptoms like chest pains, paralysis, loss of vision, stomach cramps, choking sensations, a fear that death is imminent and dissociation.


Dissociation is a defence mechanism that the mind employs when it is overloaded with stress. The word actually refers to a range of conditions, but when it comes to panic attacks we are talking about depersonalisation. This happens when, mid-panic attack, the person suddenly feels like they are outside of their body, observing and experiencing the situation from a distance. In the case of emetophobia and panic attacks, this sensation usually lasts no longer than the attack itself.

Why do emetophobes get panic attacks?

Panic attacks are a potential symptom of many phobias. This makes sense when you consider that most phobias involve a fear of something, combined with a frequent anxiety that the person will be forced to confront that very thing. As a result, people with phobias often go through life being very vigilant about when, why or how the object of their fear may present itself. 

Obsessing about something can make it all the more intense when it actually happens. Thus, an emetophobe who witnesses someone being sick, for example, may have a panic attack because their worst fear has been realised. In addition, so much tension has been built around the prospect of such scenarios that when they occur, a panic attack may be the body’s only way of producing relief—a bit like releasing a pressure valve.

Life is particularly tricky for those with emetophobia, because what they fear is a normal bodily function. We all experience nausea sometimes, but for emetophobes this common symptom is incredibly nerve-wracking. To further complicate things, nausea is also a symptom of anxiety. Emetophobes can therefore find themselves in a vicious cycle of worrying about feeling nauseous, which then becomes a reality because of the anxiety that is triggered in response. If this kind of pattern continues it can result in a panic attack. 

To reduce the chances of this happening, make sure you know these 5 emetophobia symptoms that can be mistaken for sickness.

Phobias vs panic disorders

Panic attacks are most closely associated with a condition called panic disorder. Both phobias and panic disorder are types of anxiety disorder, so they do share certain symptoms. However, it’s important to remember that they are completely separate conditions. 

The main difference between panic disorder and phobias is what triggers the symptoms. Those with a phobia may have a panic attack if they are exposed to the subject of their fear. People with panic disorder, on the other hand, can have panic attacks at any time, for no apparent reason. 

The good news for those living with emetophobia is that experiencing a panic attack does not mean that they will become a regular symptom of your condition. Indeed, many emetophobes go through life never having experienced an attack, or only having 1 or 2. This is not the case for those with panic disorder, who tend to have attacks on a more regular basis. 

Tips for dealing with panic attacks

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Before they happen…

There are certain things you can do to reduce the likelihood of panic attacks occurring. This mostly involves taking care of yourself so that your body is able to deal with anxiety without it spiralling into a full-blown attack. 

  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Partake in regular exercise
  • Reduce your caffeine intake
  • Reduce alcohol consumption
  • Eat regular meals

Of course, these healthy habits are easier said than done. If you do have a panic attack, it’s important not to blame yourself. Even if you make every effort to prevent them from happening, panic attacks are something we ultimately cannot control without professional help

When you feel one coming on…

If you are feeling very anxious and worry that a panic attack is imminent, a few adjustments to your surroundings and mindset can make a big difference. Consider trying some of the following:

  • Engage your other senses by:
    • Chewing gum
    • Using peppermint oil in a diffuser
    • Squeezing a stress ball
    • Sniffing some lavender
  • Distract your mind by watching a familiar, uplifting TV show or film
  • Listen to a guided meditation
  • Unclench, stretch and relax your muscles

During a panic attack…

  • Don’t fight it—once it’s in motion it’s best to ride it out
  • Attempt to acknowledge the attack without actively engaging in it
  • Focus on slowing your breathing down
  • Take deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth
  • Stamp your feet to release tension in the body
  • Panic attacks feed on strong emotions—repeat calming thoughts to yourself:
    • “I am safe”
    • “I am not in danger”
    • “I can cope with this”
  • If dissociation kicks in, use grounding techniques like wrapping yourself in a blanket or holding a physical object

After a panic attack…

  • Let your body rest
  • Hydrate yourself
  • Have a snack or small meal
  • Confide in a loved one

Treatment for panic attacks linked to emetophobia

Image source: Jay Castor (via Unsplash)

If panic attacks have become a regular symptom of your phobia, your anxiety may have reached a level that requires medication to control. Get in touch with your doctor and see what they recommend. The type of medicines administered for panic attacks include antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or anti-epilepsy drugs like pregabalin and clonazepam. Keep in mind that such medication can be addictive and may cause negative side effects.

One of the best ways to tackle panic attacks linked to emetophobia is to treat the phobia itself. Therapeutic approaches including cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy and exposure therapy have proven to be very effective in this area. Therapy can be carried out in combination with or instead of medication. When you’re ready to say goodbye to emetophobia, EmetoGo can help. We have a range of experienced therapists who can teach you how to manage your symptoms and even overcome emetophobia for good. To get started, simply fill out a contact form and we’ll do the rest.