The fear of vomiting, or emetophobia, affects people of all ages. It is often seen in childhood and if left untreated, can become debilitating. It is also known to develop during adulthood, perhaps after an associated experience such as a severe stomach illness or episode of vomiting. The consequences of vomit phobia can be extreme, leading to such things as school refusal, social isolation, and job loss. Emetophobia can also take away any joy in life, hindering travel and leisure activities, romantic relationships, and even pregnancy (afraid of morning sickness).
To be clear, emetophobia is not just being afraid of throwing up. Rather it is an excessive or irrational fear about the possibility of vomiting. In fact, says Dr. Steve Seay, most of the people he treats for emetophobia have symptoms of other conditions such as social anxiety, agoraphobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This post will focus on emetophobia and OCD.
First, it is important to discuss some examples of behavior that present with all types of emetophobia:
- Avoidance behaviors such as not eating certain foods (severe cases could lead to anorexia), not going to specific places, or not participating in certain events you might associate with vomiting (could be something as simple as avoiding parties with food).
- “Health-conscious” behaviors such as refusing to shake hands with others in case they are/were sick, excessive handwashing, and unreasonable amounts of time and attention paid to food selection, preparation and cleanliness.
- “Checking” behaviors to detect early signs of illness, such as being hypervigilant with your own health (taking your temperature 5 times a day), as well as being keenly aware of the health of others (watching other people eat to make sure they are not or don’t get sick).
- Actions done specifically to reduce the possibility of throwing up, such as the performance of rituals (If I repeat “I won’t throw up” over and over in my head, then I won’t throw up).
For those with OCD who suffer with emetophobia, symptoms are also likely to include the concern that vomiting signals something much worse than it typically is, such as indication of a deadly disease. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder also might believe that if they do vomit, they will not be able to cope with the situation. Not surprisingly, those with OCD and emetophobia demonstrate more cleaning and checking rituals than others with emetophobia. While they know intellectually these rituals make no sense, they are not able to control them.
As with all types of OCD, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is needed to battle emetophobia. For example, a child who will only eat certain foods because she is afraid of vomiting might be asked to eat something different, and then feel the subsequent anxiety. Another exposure might include watching videos over and over of people vomiting, sitting with the anxiety and not engaging in avoidance. With more exposures (and no rituals) the person with OCD will get used to the idea of vomiting, lessening the hold of OCD and emetophobia. This is known as habituation.
I think it’s safe to say that nobody enjoys vomiting. But if the fear of it is overtaking your life, please seek help. With a competent therapist, emetophobia, with or without OCD, is absolutely treatable.