Despite being the fifth most common phobia, Emetophobia is still relatively unknown, so sometimes it can be hard for family and friends to understand. Thankfully, the lovely Melissa from Geek Magnifique has some tips to help loved ones have a better idea of what’s going on.
If you know someone with emetophobia (a fear of vomit/vomiting) I’m sure you’ve often had questions. Maybe they seem unusually nervous or have adopted strange habits and you just want to understand what’s going through their head. Emetophobia is a difficult and at times debilitating phobia that can have a serious impact on a person’s quality of life. If your loved one is struggling it can be difficult to find ways to address this. I hope this post gives you a bit of an insight into the way someone with emetophobia sees the world, and can offer you some ideas of how to broach this difficult subject with them.
It can take many forms
Emetophobia affects people in many different ways. For some people it’s the sight and smell of vomit, for others it’s more a fear of being sick themselves. Friends of mine don’t understand why I’m perfectly fine with seeing someone throw up after drinking, but treat them like they have the plague if they might have some sort of bug. The reason to me seems obvious, but I’ve had to explain it time and time again: I’m only afraid of being physically sick myself. So someone having food poisoning or too much to drink doesn’t bother me, but if there’s a danger I can catch something, it’s a very different story.
It’s a phobia, it’s not rational
If I had a penny for every time someone tried to reassure me (‘It won’t kill you’/ ‘It’s just your body doing what it needs to do’/ ‘You’ll feel so much better after you’ve been sick’…) I’d be very rich indeed. In the same way an arachnophobe knows a spider isn’t going to kill them, the logical side of me understands that vomiting is not the end of the world. But that doesn’t stop the icy terror that fills my body if I start to feel queasy, or the desperate urge I have to wash my hands if I think I’ve somehow become contaminated. I appreciate the sentiment, and I know people are only trying to help, but telling me I have nothing to worry about isn’t going to suddenly, magically cure me.
It encourages some unusual behaviour
In CBT you learn about ‘safety behaviours.’ These are behaviours you adopt as a way of ‘protecting’ yourself and can become quite extreme. My emetophobia has led me to develop all sorts of these, including but not limited to:
- Compulsive handwashing
- Avoidance of certain foods/restaurants
- Avoidance of public toilets
- Starving myself
- Superstitions, for example knocking on wood after saying the word vomit, reluctance to say certain words for fear of tempting fate, or an uncharacteristic or sudden belief in karma (‘I can’t do [insert ‘bad’ thing] or the universe will punish me by making me sick’)
I’m aware most of this post so far sounds really strange, but my goal here isn’t to sugar coat emetophobia. It’s a fairly common phobia and yet so little is actually understood about it. If I help one person to understand why their friend is struggling with simple day-to-day life, or has adopted unusual habits, then I will have done my job.
At one office I worked in I managed to convince myself that every surface was contaminated, so no matter how much I washed my hands I still didn’t feel safe eating there. Every day for two months I went to work for 9+ hours and didn’t let anything pass my lips. It had a serious impact on my health, but it’s what I thought I needed to do to prevent myself from being sick. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? That’s the problem with emetophobia, and what I think so many people find confusing about it.
The other thing I’m sure my friends find frustrating is that these rules I’ve made up in my own head aren’t consistent. For example, I’ll avoid chicken most of the time, but there are certain ‘safe’ places where I’ll eat it. This decision will often be based on nothing but gut instinct. I can appreciate that this inconsistency may make it seem like I’m lying or exaggerating, but I promise I’m not.
It’s not the same as germ phobia
A person with emetophobia won’t freak out if you have a cold or necessarily bleach every surface in their house compulsively.
It can take over your life
Sometimes I lie awake at night and imagine the sensation of being sick over and over again. These thoughts force their way into my mind and fill my stomach with a heavy sense of dread. Sometimes the realisation that it’s inevitable that I will be sick at some point in my life hits me so hard that I start to panic. I begin to wonder what the point of living is if I’m always going to have this constant fear. There are times of the year when it’s a lot more manageable, but the winter months, when there’s a lot more talk of bugs going around, can be really tough.
There’s a nice way to ask questions
I’m always happy to answer questions and talk openly about my emetophobia. I want more people to understand it, believe me. So please, ask me as many questions as you want. But some comments just make me feel like you’re challenging or doubting me. They make me feel ashamed and stupid.
Unhelpful comments include:
- ‘But I’ve seen you eat chicken before.’
- ‘You never used to be like this.’
It’s a very complicated issue to talk about, but there are much nicer ways to address it. You could ask your friend what it is about chicken that now worries them, or where they think their phobia has come from. For anyone with a phobia the world is a scary and overwhelming place, so please be gentle.
My emetophobia often stops me doing the things I want. I’ve let down friends, embarrassed myself and freaked out in public. Believe me, I don’t want to be like this, so please be kind. Don’t mock, don’t judge, just ask questions and try to understand.
Treating it is complicated
I have had some really good results with CBT. I used to struggle with seeing vomiting, and would actively avoid scenes in films or TV programmes because of it. Thanks to exposure therapy (looking at lots of photos and videos of people vomiting, a delightful way to spend an afternoon!) I’m no longer phased by that. But the larger issue is still lurking menacing in the background; I’m no less terrified of being sick myself. I’m about to start some more focused, high-intensity CBT, and have recently started taking Sertraline, an SSRI that’s supposed to help with OCD and phobias. I’m hopeful that this two-pronged attack will help me to finally conquer my emetophobia.
It’s a tough battle and one that no-one should have to face alone. If someone you love is struggling, be kind and supportive, and listen if they need to talk. Recommend they see their doctor or a counsellor. You could even offer to take them to the appointment if they’re finding the idea a bit daunting.
There’s no easy fix
Unfortunately there are no magic words to say to someone with emetophobia. Trying to understand how someone is feeling is the best thing you can do, but don’t take it upon yourself to cure them. Don’t, and I can’t stress this enough, try to trick or force someone into doing something they don’t feel comfortable with. Pressuring someone into eating food they’re frightened of will only cause unnecessary stress and upset.
Letting someone eat something that’s out of date and then telling them afterwards to prove the point that they were absolutely fine is dangerous and will seriously knock their trust, not only in you, but in all food offered to them. You may well be 100% certain that an item of food is safe but as frustrating as it might be that you can’t make your friend see that, you just have to accept it. If gentle reassurance doesn’t work, leave it at that.
Sufferers want to feel listened to and understood
If you’re cooking for a friend with emetophobia, don’t say things like, ‘I’m guessing you probably won’t eat that,’ or ‘I would normally make this with beef but I assume you’re not eating meat.’ Let your friend tell you how they feel, without making assumptions.
Don’t speak for your friend either. If a group of you are choosing a restaurant don’t say, ‘Katie won’t eat somewhere like that.’ Let her speak for herself. It’s lovely that you’re trying to be considerate and make your friend feel at ease, but it will probably make them feel more like a fussy child.
Let us tell you what we feel comfortable with, and don’t make assumptions.
‘No-one likes being sick’
No. Just no. Never say that to someone with emetophobia. Nothing will make them feel more stupid or belittled than hearing those words.
I have suffered with emetophobia since I was a teenager and it’s gotten steadily worse over the years. For me the fear definitely stems from loss of control, vulnerability and the feeling of being completely at the mercy of my own body. Counselling has helped me to understand and explore these feelings, and I’m hopeful that soon I will be able to beat emetophobia once and for all.
If you’re struggling, you’re not alone
For more information about CBT or to find a therapist in your area please visit the online CBT register: www.cbtregisteruk.com
Alternatively, you can speak to your GP for more information about possible courses of treatment.