Call us today 0330 390 3960

Can Fear Cause You to Vomit?

Woman wearing red jumper lying down with an arm over her face
Image source: Mel Elías (via Unsplash)

A fear of vomiting can cause a person to change their entire lifestyle to avoid coming into contact with potential triggers. Though irrational, this fear can be intense, pervasive and has many profound effects on an emetophobe—but can this very fear cause them to vomit?

To answer this, we’re going to delve into the role that fear plays in emetophobia, how it affects the human body and whether or not it can cause you to vomit. Let’s get started!

Table of contents

A fear of vomiting

People with emetophobia have an intense fear of vomiting, seeing other people vomit, or feeling nauseous. Some emetophobes may also experience a fear of being out of control when they are sick or visiting areas where vomiting may occur.

Like most specific phobias, the way in which emetophobia affects people can vary enormously. It is, however, characterised mainly by avoidant behaviours that can become obsessive over time, such as:

  • Avoiding sick people or places that could cause sickness
  • Eating “safe” foods to prevent contact with germs or nausea
  • Excessively washing hands and disinfecting surfaces
  • Compulsively checking food expiration dates
  • Keeping an eye out for signs of illness
  • Limiting social interactions

In short, emetophobia can feel overwhelming enough to cause a complete shift in behaviour. This is fuelled entirely by fear, so let’s take a closer look at what else fear can do to the human body.

What is fear?

Brunette woman hiding her face with her duvet
Image source: Alexandra Gorn (via Unsplash)

Fear is an emotion that acts as an internal security system for humans—warning us when we’re in the presence of something that may result in physical, emotional or psychological harm. If extreme, it is intensive and overpowering.

The fear we feel can be entirely rational, stemming from a real threat. However, it can also be irrational due to a mental health condition, such as PTSD, panic disorder and specific phobias like emetophobia.

How does fear affect the body?

Fear has a profound effect on the human body, causing various physiological changes that can be distressing and overwhelming.

When we feel fear, we trigger the fight-or-flight response, an automatic reaction to a situation or object perceived as threatening. It starts with the amygdala—responsible for sensing fear—sending signals to the hypothalamus to kickstart the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS uses two systems to control the fight or flight response: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The former provides the body with enough energy to fight or flee, and the latter calms the body once the danger has passed.

Once the ANS is activated, the sympathetic nervous system sends signals to the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic (ACTH) hormone. It results in the release of cortisol, adrenaline and epinephrine.

Some of the following symptoms can then occur:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Cold hands
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling
  • Chills
  • Urge to empty bladder
  • Nausea

These bodily sensations can make a person feel highly overwhelmed and uncomfortable. However, it’s the last symptom, nausea, that is especially distressing for emetophobes.

Nausea as a result of fear

During the fight-or-flight response, our body is trying to prepare itself to run away or fight the threat. To do this, it needs to increase blood flow and oxygen to essential parts of the body, such as the muscles and brain, by diverting it away from non-essential parts of the body.

The digestive system is one of the non-essential parts of the body, which means that digestion can slow or, in extreme cases, even stop—suppressing the intestinal contractions that move the food and the secretions that break it down to divert all energy to the perceived threat. This disrupts the process of digestion and can lead to:

  • Acid reflux
  • Butterflies
  • Cramps
  • Diarrhoea
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea 
  • Stomach pain

For most people, these symptoms are uncomfortable but manageable. For emetophobes, however, they’re a sign that their greatest fear is imminent. Rather than understanding that these symptoms are a by-product of their fear, they misinterpret them and believe they will vomit.

The more they worry about it, the more scared they get and the more they exacerbate their symptoms—resulting in a vicious and seemingly endless cycle of agony.

When fear becomes persistent

Most people with specific phobias aren’t just limited to feeling fear in a particular scenario involving their triggers; they’re plagued with fears about future events. Emetophobes, for example, might worry about going to university because of the strong likelihood of bumping into students who are drinking excessively.

Whilst this is still fear, it’s technically a more specific type of fear: what’s known as anxiety. Like general fear, anxiety can also have profound effects on the body that can be quite distressing for an emetophobe and may, as a result, lead to vomiting.

What is anxiety?

Man sat on floor with his head on his knees
Image source: Fernando @cferdophotography (via Unsplash)

According to the NHS, anxiety is a “feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe”. So, what makes it so different from general fear? Fear is a response to a perceived threat in our environment, whereas anxiety is a worry, or fear, of a potential threat. In other words, fear is for present danger, and anxiety is for future danger.

Everyone has felt anxiety at some point in their life, especially for important events like taking a test, preparing for your first day at work, or waiting for medical test results. However, it is a different kettle of fish for people with anxiety disorders like emetophobia.

People with phobias find it much more challenging to manage their worries and contend with persistent anxiety affecting their daily lives. In severe cases, they may start to follow strict avoidance strategies to steer clear of what is causing this anxiety.

How does anxiety affect the body?

Like fear, anxiety can significantly affect the human body, causing a range of psychological and physiological symptoms that can vary in intensity and frequency.

The constant worry that an emetophobe may feel over encountering the object of their fears can cause psychological symptoms such as:

  • Feeling restless or worried
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Excessive worrying 
  • Irritability 
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Panicking about worst-case scenarios
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • A sense of doom
  • Feeling detached from the body

Anxiety can also activate the very same fight-or-flight response as general fear. As a result, there is some overlap between the physiological symptoms of fear and anxiety (the differences are italicised):

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Cold hands
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain

As anxiety is a type of prolonged fear, these symptoms can be much more challenging to deal with. They are more persistent and can prevent people from going about their daily lives.

Nausea as a result of anxiety

The nausea caused by fear usually dissipates after the danger has passed. When it is caused by anxiety, though, it can become a regular occurrence for many emetophobes. This can be problematic for two reasons:

  1. It means that the fight-or-flight response will likely become a frequent occurrence, which can cause the body to take longer to recover, potentially leading to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and/or stomach ulcers. 
  2. It forces emetophobes to regularly contend with distressing symptoms that make them feel like their worst nightmare is fast approaching.

Can fear and anxiety cause you to throw up?

As we’ve highlighted, fear and anxiety can lead to symptoms of nausea, stomach butterflies and general upheaval in the digestive system, but can this cause you to vomit? The answer is that it depends.

When some people experience symptoms of fear and anxiety, they will try their best to ignore them and soldier on—knowing that they’re just the body’s way of reacting to the object of their fear and that they will go away in time. However, people with emetophobia tend not to be able to apply this logic to their situation.

Emetophobes are more likely to misinterpret these symptoms as a sign that they will vomit. This then kickstarts a vicious cycle of:

  • Getting scared after encountering a trigger OR feeling anxious about potential scenarios involving vomit
  • Triggering symptoms of nausea and stomach upset
  • Panicking and assuming that they’re going to be sick
  • Feeling more scared and anxious
  • Exacerbating symptoms of nausea and stomach upset

On and on, this cycle can go until the emetophobe either tires themselves out, uses one of their self-help strategies to settle their stomach (like drinking ginger or peppermint tea), or ends up fulfilling their fear.

So, in a way, fear and anxiety can cause an emetophobe to vomit, but not in a direct fashion. Technically speaking, it’s not the fear or anxiety that can make you throw up; it’s the way you misinterpret and hyper-fixate on the feelings of nausea that can lead to this outcome.

Managing your fear and anxiety

Tall stack of pebbles with a beach in the background
Image source: Colton Sturgeon (via Unsplash)

If you’re finding that your fear and anxiety are driving you to vomit or causing uncomfortable physical sensations that you’d rather avoid, there are a few steps you can take to reduce the effects.

Break the cycle

One of the reasons that fear and anxiety may cause you to throw up is because you misinterpret the signals your body is giving you and end up caught up in the vicious cycle of fear, nausea and more fear.

You can break this cycle by recognising how fear and anxiety affect your body. Instead of just focusing on how nauseous you feel and catastrophising, concentrate on the other sensations, such as excessive sweating, rapid breathing and increased heart rate, and tell yourself that your body is simply reacting to an immediate or imagined threat.

It’s certainly easier said than done, but the more you do it, the easier it will become to manage your nausea and reduce the chances of your vomiting.

Calm your mind

Finding ways to distract yourself can go a long way toward curbing any nausea caused by fear and anxiety and helping you regain control of your life.

There are many potential techniques that you can integrate into your daily routine, including:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Positive affirmations
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Guided imagery
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Gentle exercise

For more information, head to our eight calming techniques for emetophobia.

Get treatment

Though there’s no definitive cure, plenty of emetophobia treatment options will help you manage and potentially wave goodbye to your fear and anxiety.

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps you evaluate the accuracy and helpfulness of the thoughts that trigger your fears and replace them with more accurate ones.
  • Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing yourself to the things and situations that trigger your fear of vomiting to learn to tolerate and manage your symptoms.
  • Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy allows you to reprocess traumatic events involving your fear of vomiting so that they no longer trigger negative emotions and symptoms.
  • Hypnotherapy uses a mix of guided imagery and other techniques to get you to challenge your negative fears and beliefs about vomiting so that you no longer feel distressed or helpless.

Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be prescribed to reduce the symptoms of anxiety caused by emetophobia, but their potential side effects usually include nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. However, gastrointestinal medications can effectively minimise the feelings of nausea and, as a result, your fear response.

Looking for an experienced therapist to help you regain control of your life?

EmetoGo has a team of therapists specialising in treatments ranging from CBT to EMDR. You can take these sessions virtually, in person, or try a mix! To take the first step on your journey to freedom, fill out our consultation form.

We’ll then be in touch shortly to assess your condition and recommend the best treatment option to suit your needs.