Me: ‘ I can’t stand people being sick’
Someone else: ‘yeah, nobody likes people being sick’
But does everyone else..
Wake with a racing heart after repeated nightmares about vomiting?
Replay historic sickness scenarios through their minds like unwelcome horror films?
Experience a sharp rise of panic when someone coughs loudly on a train?
Feel intense fear when someone announces they don’t feel well?
Avoid social occasions, certain foods or travelling because of the increased likelihood of sickness?
Leap off public transport at an unknown location because a fellow traveller looks a little green?
Fear two of the year’s most beautiful seasons because of the sickness bugs that hover like the grim reaper ready to plunge you into a vortex of Dettol and washing cycles?
Approach pregnancy with trepidation out of fear of morning sickness?
Feel like a failure as a mum because they have to work hard to comfort your own sick child
The night I ran across three lanes of busy traffic with my hands over my ears and my eyes half closed, to escape someone vomiting….
I knew I needed to address the emetophobia once and for all.
It had had enough headspace, it had dictated too many decisions, tainted too many social occasions with anxiety. It had robbed me of enough. My fear of vomiting, and others vomiting, had been the background buzz of my life for as long as I could remember, and it was unrelenting. It showed no sign of subsiding.
There is hope. I promise you.
What is emetophobia.
Emetophobia is a fear of vomiting, or seeing others vomit. It’s very prevalent and is experienced by 1.7-3.1% of males, and a huge 6-8% of females (anxietyUK). It’s often unspoken about because people feel concerned about being misunderstood or dismissed as overreacting.
Emetophobia can be related to other fears and forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Symptoms can range from mild fear to brain tiring rumination and life-impacting apprehension. Sufferers may find themselves avoiding travel, social situations or public places. They may avoid certain foods out of fear of food poisoning, or they may avoid food altogether. In fact, emetophobia can sometimes be wrongly diagnosed as anorexia.
You may or may not be able to pinpoint when the phobia began. It might have been a traumatic event such as food poisoning or a stomach virus as a child. But it may have been simply that you felt scared and out of control at some point when unwell.
There IS hope.
Emetophobia dominated a lot of my life for many years. I can think back to the acute panic, from as young as age 6. For decades, I’d constantly scan the ground for vomit, my eyes would sweep corners and curbs like I was looking for something of value. I don’t even know what I wanted to achieve by that. I think it was the fear of being taken by surprise, it gave me an illusion of control over something which made me feel terrifyingly out of control.
I’d replay scenarios over and over in my mind from as much as 10 years before. My mum recognised it when I once ran away in panic as a young child vomited in the crowd of a local fair. It has manifested in varying ways and to varying degrees along the way. For ten years my body wouldn’t allow myself to be physically sick. But then I was (short story – too many speedily downed vodka redbulls), and I could.
In later years I experienced hyperemesis in two of my three pregnancies and was sick around ten times per day for months. It became commonplace. I was desensitised to my own sickness. But it’s a different kind of sickness to the one that is thrusted upon you for no reason other than a little spiky virus.
I don’t need to go into detail of the impact emetophobia had on my life. You know the drill. You’re here because you know the drill too well and you want out. You want hope.
How did you get it?
I’m not entirely sure. But if I could hazard a guess, I’d say it might have had something to do with memories of sickness being tied up with my sister’s brain cancer diagnosis and treatment. It was a turbulent time in our lives, one that was ruled by radio therapy appointments and side-effects. Our family life felt like a handbag that was upended and rigorously shaken as the contents tumbled out, clattering and rolling upon the floor. There was no control. We had no control. Cancer had control. It was terrifying, and seeing my sister sick both punctuated that journey and reminded us of the pressure inside her tiny head.
How did you make it go away?
It’s still there.
That’s not what you wanted to read.
BUT don’t stop reading.
Yes, my anxiety might spike when I hear of the winter bugs doing the rounds. My eyes might sharply dart when I hear someone coughing violently on public transport. My heart momentarily races when the kids complain of stomach aches. I may swiftly make excuses and remove myself from certain scenarios if I safely can.
I do not live in fear. Emetophobia no longer robs me of my grounding. It no longer has me wishing the winter months of life away, or turning down invitations, or lying awake with anxiety that we will be next. It no longer dictates my menu choices or has me grappling for alternative methods of transport.
I live with emetophobia. But my life is not ruled by it. It nudges into my headspace, but I have the tools to deftly kick it out again.
How did you make this transition?
(I write about this a LOT in my Reframing Anxiety Course. I use my Emetophobia as an example of how we can work with and through phobias by truly understanding what happens within anxiety, and by utilising certain tips when we are triggered. I really encourage you to engage in the course if you want to address your Emetophobia. If money is tricky, use ra-save15 for a discount).
For me it was a number of things I worked on over numerous years, things I implemented and encouraged myself to do, trusting that the outcome would benefit me somehow. It’s the the increased self-compassion and self-coaching. The quest to understand myself regardless of whether others can understand me.
Here are the things that helped…
1 – I learnt exactly what anxiety was and how it worked in my body. Get to understand the process of the different hormones at play. Equant yourself with how the adrenaline and the cortisol interact, how your fight or flight response is triggered and why. Knowledge is so important. You experience a sense of control when you realise that you are bigger than the habitual processes that happen within your body.
2 – I found some brilliant techniques to lessen the physical and mental impact of the phobia. Good grounding and breathing techniques will tell your body that you are not at threat. Breathe in for 4, out for 8 as soon as you feel your anxiety rising. It switches off your sympathetic nervous system, and enables you to access your rational brain. The more you do this, the earlier you’ll be able to implement it.
3 – I became sensitive to my overthinking. My thoughts would spiral at any trigger – be it seeing someone sick in a film, an image, a joke, or a real-life scenario. I’d spent time ruminating over the fear, which would then kick off my fight or flight response and induce physical feelings of panic. The further down the spiral I flew, the harder it was to rationalise. Simple grounding techniques such as counting back from 100’s in 3’s can halt that cycle, because you cannot overthink whilst doing maths.
4 – I find mantras really helpful when faced with sickness, or thoughts of sickness. These are little sentences to encourage and bolster confidence. I often tell myself ‘We’ve come through it before. If we need to, we can do it again’. Or ‘I have the resources I need to make it through’. ‘I am bigger than these feelings’. Mantras are like warrior cry’s. They ground me and act like the kind parent, bringing rationality and encouraging me that I can make it through.
5 – I sought therapy to deal with the traumas behind the phobia. There often is a story behind a phobia that deserves listening to and processing. Even today, I came off the phone to my therapist after talking about the death of my sister, decades later. There’s still stuff I need to process because I tucked it away for so many years. Our histories are alive in our present, and when they are unprocessed, they fuel anxiety, fear and phobia. As I continue to give my past space, it slowly loses power over my present. My past is still there, it still happened and it still has value, but it has less control.
6 – I mimic the reactions of those around me. At university, my friends would often be sick due to over-indulging in alcohol. I’d see the nonchalance of the people around them, and I’d try to channel their attitude. They were caring but not terrified. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But every time it worked; it bolstered my confidence a little.
7 – Now, this is the biggy. This is the most important point.
I tried not to flee situations immediately when I felt triggered. Now, this was the biggest challenge for me. My body and mind fought extremely hard to remove me from any situation in which I was triggered. A train seat, a party, a busy street, a car. I’d look for the nearest exit opportunity and I’d bolt. Sometimes it’s possible to up and leave, sometimes it simply isn’t.
I reminded myself that anxiety peaks and falls. Like a labour contraction, anxiety cannot continue to rise and rise forever, otherwise we’d explode. Anxiety is a mechanism designed to keep us safe. Panic is a mechanism to keep us alive in which our senses and awareness suddenly fire on all cylinders. But it is not sustainable. Anxiety and panic will fall, even if our trigger isn’t removed.
The most pertinent moments in disempowering my emetophobia, are the times in which I utilised my breathing and grounding techniques throughout the triggering experiences, endured them, and emerged the other side triumphant.
Imagine that you really want to ride a rollercoaster, but you know it has a scary drop. Every time you reach the peak before the drop, you feel the fear, the risk and the apprehension. So you press the emergency stop button and you use the emergency ladder to escape. Your anxiety falls, you feel safe again.
Should you find a way to ride through the drop, to cope somehow, to breathe your way to the bottom of the terrifying peak, you’ll no longer purely associate the ride with fear. You’ll be able to think beyond the drop, to the sense of accomplishment and empowerment you get at the end.
8 – I question my response. Shall I Ride it out? Or Run.
I ask myself if this is something I can ride through using my grounding and breathing techniques, or whether it’s something I can give myself permission to run from.
For example, when I find myself making assumptions about vomiting – such as, that person is pale, therefore they are sick. Or, my child has a tummy ache, therefore he certainly has norovirus. These are not always discovered to be truth! Perhaps that person is tired, or my child has mild constipation, or ate too fast. I must also ride through times that my children are sick, because I am responsible for them!
Riding these situations through can certainly be anxiety provoking, but using the right techniques, I come out the other end feeling tired but accomplished! Like I’ve weathered a storm. I’ve exercised a muscle that will make me stronger for the next experience because I have lived through it and survived, yet again. It rewrites the old, repetitive story.
Can I run? If I am out and about and someone looks as if they are about to be sick, or someone is sick, I ask myself whether the best thing is to ride or run. Am I making assumptions about the situation? Is it safe and convenient for me to leave, are they safe? If so, I see no harm in removing myself and using techniques to calm myself.
So what can I do?
I hope my own experience has offered you some hope and tips.
You are not alone. You are not broken. You do not have to deal with emetophobia to this intensity forever. Absolutely not. You are worth more than a life buzzing with an undercurrent of fear of the next episode.
This wintery season can be triggering for so many people, but you’ve got this. You’ve been there, you’ve done it before and you’d make it through again if it happened. Lean on your tools, hold onto them like trustworthy lifeboats in a stormy sea.
Not everyone will understand how you feel. It can be really hard when you’ve made yourself open and vulnerable to someone and felt misunderstood. Educate those around you so that they can best support you, whether it’s reminding you to breathe or by helping ground you through helping you rationalise things when your head is in a spiral. Maybe send them this blog article!
Find some good, solid breathing and grounding techniques, and practice them when you don’t need them, so that when you do need them, they are easy to implement and you can do so at an earlier point.
I encourage you to seek therapeutic support if you can. You can get a counselling referral via the NHS. The Counselling Directory is my first port of call for finding local practitioners. Also there are local charities and training institutes that may be able to offer low/no cost therapy options. Sometimes phobias are rooted in experience or trauma, and talking it through whilst addressing some of these thoughts, can really help.
You’ll find more in depth insight, techniques and support through my Reframing Anxiety Course if you’d like them.
Anxietyuk.org – https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/anxiety-type/emetophobia/
NHS – https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/phobias/
Counselling Directory – https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk