Are You Afraid of Throwing Up?
(Warning: some emetophobics have a difficult time encountering words and themes related to their phobia. Even just the words alone can be very triggering. If you are extremely sensitive to the “V” and “N” words, and their various slang names, please read the below with caution.)
Sure, vomiting is unpleasant. I don’t know a single soul who looks forward to getting the stomach virus, but most of my friends and family members can puke, if needed, with a staggeringly positive attitude and a calm demeanor.
I don’t know how they do it. Nausea and vomiting — even just the idea of vomiting — are panic triggers for me. Nausea will easily produce a fight-or-flight response in my gut, and the resulting adrenaline rush will, in turn, stir up more nausea. I am afraid of feeling nauseous and afraid of what the unsettled stomach might lead to.
But is my fear of vomiting a phobia in and of itself?
I was six years old. It was a chilly December evening as my mom and I walked into the West Side Mall to see Santa Claus. I knew my whole Christmas list by heart and I couldn’t wait to tell Santa what I wanted.
We waited in line. I was wearing a pony tail, a light blue sweatshirt with all sorts of neon doodads glued to the front, and I had an orange soda stain above my upper lip. It was my typical childhood uniform.
When I sat on Santa’s lap, he asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Suddenly spacey, I told him I couldn’t really remember. I smiled for the camera and they handed me the Polaroid.
Mom and I left the mall and drove home.
T-MINUS TEN MINUTES
It was a quick drive to our home the next town over. Still spacey and feeling indescribably unusual, I walked inside, took off my jacket, and sat down on the living room floor. Then, suddenly, a horrible feeling overcame me and my gut.
“Mom,” I yelled, “something is wrong! I don’t feel good!”
She ran me into the bathroom where I puked up orange soda for the rest of the evening and night. I remember staring into the peach-colored toilet bowl. I remember my mom pressing a wet hunter green washcloth to my back. I remember refusing to close my mouth lest I accidentally swallow any of the vomit.
I remember getting shaky after each bout of puking. I remember how I laid on the couch while my mom watched Dallas on our old RCA TV in the wooden cabinet. It was the very first night of my entire life that I didn’t brush my teeth before bed. My mom said it’s okay to skip that step if you’re puking and you think the taste of the toothpaste would make you feel sick, and my six-year-old self agreed.
The next morning, I stayed home from school. My mom needed to run a few errands and couldn’t leave me home alone, so I had to go with her. My last “throw up,” as I used to call an individual vomit session, had been in the middle of the night. Still, as I climbed into her car, my mom handed me a white plastic bucket with a picture of a red crab on it.
“Just in case,” she said.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
For most, this is the kind of childhood memory that might fade away after a few years. Perhaps the memory of vomiting would remain, but the details would dissolve. And the details (like the green washcloth or the design on the bucket) would mean nothing within a few years.
But for me, every single detail remained. And every single detail is still a nausea trigger.
Twenty-one years have passed and I still can’t drink orange soda. I still fear peach-colored toilets. I still don’t like white buckets with red designs or logos. Or the number “six” (for my age). And I hate hunter green washcloths. And Dallas. And December. (Oh, and perhaps it goes without saying that I never went to see Santa again.)
Even the intangibles still effect me: getting a “spacey” feeling or hearing someone say the words “just in case” can make my heart start pounding.
So, why is this story so memorable to me? In fact, why are ALL of my vomit experiences bizarrely memorable? Is any of this connected to my present-day panic attacks over feeling the slightest twinge of nausea while on a car ride or after eating something new?
THERE’S A WORD FOR THIS
Enter emetophobia, or the intense and irrational fear of vomiting. It’s a specific phobia, diagnosable in the DSM (300.29), and it’s very common. From Wikipedia:
Emetophobia refers to the intense fear of vomiting, feeling nauseated, seeing or hearing another person vomit, or seeing vomit itself. An individual with emetophobia may fear one, some, or all of these things. They may also be afraid of hearing that someone is feeling like vomiting or that someone has vomited, usually in conjunction with the fears of seeing someone vomit or seeing vomit. As with any phobia, these fears are not always logical, but they are present and very real.
British Columbia-based counselor Anna Christie describes some of the symptoms of emetophobia here. They include the following:
- Excessive hand-washing
- Superstitions about numbers and dates (the date, year, or age during which you last threw up, for example)
- Refusing to vomit when you feel ill
- Feeling the need to run away when someone else vomits
- Fear of eating food that someone else has prepared
- Fear of pregnancy (because of morning sickness)
- Fear of public restrooms (because of the chance of encountering vomit left in a toilet, or finding someone who is vomiting)
- Fear of sick people
- Fear of children (who are exceptionally likely to spit up or vomit without much warning)
Does this sound like you? I know it sure sounds like me — especially the part about the superstitions!
While I don’t advocate that you self-diagnose, I do highly recommend reading up on and printing out a few emetophobia resources to share with your doctor or therapist. Treatment usually involves CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) with gradual exposure to reduce your sensitivity to vomit.
“The goal of therapy is not for the client to vomit – it is for the client to be free from anxiety,” Christie emphasizes on her website.
Also, to connect with others who share this fear, check out the International Emetophobia Society’s website. It has a has a relatively active forum in which members post stories about their struggles and their treatment for this phobia.
- Emetophobia fact sheet: http://www.emetophobiahelp.org/fact-sheet.html
- The International Emetophobia Society: http://www.emetophobia.org
- Emetophobia FAQ: http://www.emetophobia-clinic.com/emetophobia_f-a-q.html
Beretsky, S. (2011). Are You Afraid of Throwing Up?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/panic/2011/11/are-you-afraid-of-throwing-up/