Terrified of throwing up? Learn about this phobia.

November 07, 2019 | by Laura Koehler, Psy.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Vomit. Just reading this word might make you feel queasy.

As gross as it is, vomiting is pretty normal. It’s the body’s natural reaction to rid itself of toxins in the gut, and many times you feel better after it happens.

Most people don’t like vomiting, but for some, just the thought of it is enough to cause extreme distress. This type of phobia, known as emetophobia, is an intense fear of vomiting.

Often, the anticipation of vomiting or seeing someone else vomit — and not knowing when it will happen — can be worse than the act itself.

Like all phobias, emetophobia usually starts out small and builds. Little by little, you avoid places and things you associate with throwing up. The more you avoid things, the greater your fear becomes. Until the fear soon dominates your life.

Some behaviors that may be a sign of emetophobia include:

  • Restricted eating (avoiding foods you associate with vomiting, only eating at home, eating very little, etc.)
  • Compulsively checking foods, expiration dates
  • Not touching surfaces for fear of germs
  • Avoiding sick people or settings that could cause sickness
  • Excessive hand washing/cleaning
  • Checking the locations of bathrooms when away from home
  • Restricting or avoiding travel or crowded public spaces
  • Monitoring your body for signs of illness

With emetophobia, you worry and plan. You rearrange your life to prevent the possibility of getting sick. You’re constantly on guard. You miss out on much of life. Children may refuse to go to school. Adults may stop going to work.

Sometimes people get attached to thoughts linked to a past experience with vomit. For instance, if you wore a shirt when you got sick, you avoid wearing it again. If you saw someone get sick in front of you while eating a certain food, you avoid eating that food.

What makes it worse is that when you worry about getting sick, it can trigger stomach discomfort and nausea — the very symptoms you fear. And, when you start to feel nauseated, it can trigger more anxiety about getting sick. The thought of vomit can cause trouble breathing, increased heartbeat or tightness in the chest.

Vomit phobia is surprisingly common among both children and adults, and it often begins in childhood. It can develop following a traumatic vomiting experience or without a clear cause. Having a family history of specific phobias or other anxiety disorders can increase your risk. Emetophobia is closely associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as it shares some of the same OCD symptoms.

With emetophobia, avoiding things that trigger your fear only strengthens the phobia and prolongs the problem. This is why treating vomit phobia often includes behavioral therapies and exposure therapy, which involves slowly exposing yourself to what you’re afraid of. This may mean eating certain foods, or writing the word vomit, drawing it or looking at photos of it.

As you gradually confront these situations, a therapist can teach you techniques to identify and let go of unhelpful thoughts and cope with feelings of anxiety. Sometimes medication can also provide relief from symptoms of anxiety or panic.

Do you (or does someone you know) make huge efforts to avoid situations where you or someone else could puke? When your fear or anxiety about throwing up negatively affects your life at home, school or work, it’s time to get help.

Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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