You may never have heard of it, but get this – it’s one of the top five phobias.
Let’s start with what it’s not.
It’s not something trivial. Nor is it ‘not really liking’ throwing up. (As if anyone enjoys it). Instead, this is a fear of throwing up that can leave sufferers being desperate and even suicidal.
It is –
Embarrassing. Frightening. Little understood. And sometimes serious.
Here’s how one woman describes the implications for her:
When the little blue line appeared, I couldn’t believe it. I was pregnant! For a very brief moment I was thrilled to bits. This was my wildest dream come true. But then, reality set in and then the fear. If I was pregnant, then that meant I’d probably suffer from morning sickness…
I couldn’t do it. I just knew I didn’t have the courage, or the strength. Already, just thinking about it, I was beginning to feel sick, so I knew I had to act fast.
I made an appointment for an abortion. If I got out of it quick enough then the morning sickness wouldn’t get me. I didn’t tell Richard. How could I? He knew nothing of my phobia and I knew how much he wanted kids.
So I went to the clinic on my own. I was terrified and asked to be awake whilst they scraped the baby out of me. I didn’t want to risk a general anaesthetic because of the after-effects. So I lay there, listening to the noises in the operating theatre and staring at the ceiling, praying for it all to be over. When I got back to my room, the sense of relief that I wouldn’t get sick was immense, but it competed with the strong grief that was tearing through me. I’d killed a baby because of my fear. How awful was I?
Soon after, I began cutting myself to release the pain inside. ..I even put a knife to my heart to end it all, I hurt so much inside with the knowledge of what I’d done. But I couldn’t do it. You know why? Because if I didn’t do it properly, stab myself, and Richard found me, I knew I’d get taken into hospital. That I’d be operated on. Be given a general anaesthetic and get sick that way. ..I fear being sick more than dying. How screwed up is that?
(Taken from ‘Living with Emetophobia’, by Nicolette Heaton-Harris).
Emetophobia can affect children as well as adults. There are two kinds of emetophobes – those who mainly fear themselves vomiting, and those who mainly fear other people vomiting. Within these categories, there are different degrees of severity. For some, it dominates every waking moment, causing depression (in 73 %), claustrophobia, agaraphobia and extreme anxiety, as well as keeping sufferers at a very low weight, (not just for fear of contaminated food, but to stop them having periods which might make them feel sick). Working life and relationships are also affected, leading to increasing shame, self-disgust and isolation. Emetophobes are at high risk for self-harm, eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders, particularly excessive hand-washing. They know that their behaviour is extreme and irrational, but feel trapped and distressed.
The phobia can be one of two types – ‘anxiety-based’ and ‘nausea-based’. Anxiety-based sufferers already experience underlying anxiety, usually with panic attacks, agoraphobia and social phobia. The anxiety can trigger panic attacks, leading to nausea and escalating fear.
For nausea-based sufferers, the nausea is caused by a physical illness, triggering a phobic reaction and more nausea.
It’s very difficult to tell who suffers with this, as ‘emets’ tend to keep it well hidden and are adept at thinking up excuses to get them out of threatening situations. Some clues might be: avoiding the same kinds of scenarios, such as travelling, hospitals, dentists and GP surgeries or theme parks. Food hygiene is also of paramount importance and they will usually eat food straight from its wrapping without touching it. They may also avoid eating out and foods such as eggs, fish, cheese, meats and combined foods such as shepherd’s pie, that they may consider high-risk. Alcohol is also seen as very risky, so many emets will be teetotal.
Night-time can be the hardest part of the day and some sufferers will take stimulants or sleeping-tablets to try to stave off the cycle of fear. These can be caused by worries about their dreams or by fear of feeling nauseous on waking. Lack of sleep and constant anxiety can consolidate any existing depression, leading to suicidal thoughts.
Almost one third (31 per cent) of emetophobes are suicidal.
Sufferers fear rejection if they open up – that others will mock, dismiss their worries or have no idea what they’re talking about. They may also worry that they are unique and that no-one can help. This is far from the truth. It may take a while to get one right for you, but there are emetophobia counsellors out there, as well as sympathetic GPs (who can be telephoned) and online support groups. Help is also available for those caring for or living with sufferers.
Some approaches to managing the problem include counselling, anti-depressants/anti-anxiety pills, help to manage panic attacks and techniques such as using a challenge list, where sufferers are encouraged to gradually face some of their fears, e.g. eating an ‘unsafe’ food. As with many disorders of this kind, little steps are big steps – so if this is you, please don’t give up. You are not alone and there is hope for the future. Check out some of the links below for more info: