Emetophobia is an extreme fear of vomiting, seeing vomit, watching other people vomit, or even feeling sick. It can affect people in lots of different ways, but if you think you may be struggling with emetophobia, you are not alone - help is available.
Here two of our bloggers share their experiences.
How it began
I’m 22 years old, and for around 15 years I’ve been living with one draining, life-changing phobia: emetophobia.
It all began when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was only around seven or eight years old at the time, but 15 years later I am still coming to terms with it.
When my mum was ill, I became very clingy to her, so the only way to keep me calm and settled would be if I could sleep on a blow-up bed next to my mum’s bed in her room. I always wanted to know my mum was asleep before I could fall asleep; once I knew she was asleep, I would relax a little and drift off.
One night, I drifted off and woke up when my mum (bless her) rushed over my body to make it to the toilet to be sick. She had to do this many times to get to the bathroom quick enough. The bedroom door would be wide open, as well as the bathroom door, so I would also have to hear the sound of it, which isn't nice. I remember at the time being scared of sick, but it progressively got worse and worse.
For me, one of the main symptoms of anxiety has always been nausea. Over time my anxiety got to the point that I felt sick almost all the time (something I’m sure I’m not alone with).
I was referred for therapy and waited over a year before starting CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I thought that as my anxiety got better as a result of my therapy, the nausea would disappear. But the nausea was so linked with my anxiety and had carried on for so long that I’d developed emetophobia.
How emetophobia affects us
As I got older, I noticed my hate and fear of being sick turn into an absolute phobia. Not only would I scream, cry, shout, panic and do the obvious things to avoid seeing or being sick, I actually stopped leaving the house for periods of time to avoid picking up a bug, or getting food poisoning. I am 22, and I have never had an alcoholic drink in my life. For weeks before my 21st birthday I promised myself that I would have one drink, but no, when it came to it I couldn’t bring myself to risk feeling sick after. I refuse to eat a lot of foods, just in case they make me nauseous. I also carry around hand sanitiser (even before Covid!) so that I can’t pick up a bug from not washing my hands properly.
I really worry about how my emetophobia will affect my future too. Like lots of people, I want children when I’m older, but the thought of morning sickness already worries me. Not only this, I really struggle to travel because I am petrified of being trapped on an airplane with someone around me, or in fact myself, being sick and not being able to run away and escape.
For me, watching people be sick - even in movies - was one of my worst fears. This fear made watching new films a horrible experience. If any of my family or friends had watched a film before me that I was going to watch I’d have to ask them if it had any sick in it, or anything remotely similar, like coughing or choking. It was even worse if I couldn’t check in advance, like if I was going to the cinema to see a new film. My head would be filled with images of me having to leave the cinema or room in front of everyone, which obviously didn’t help my anxiety.
It got to a point where if someone in the same room as me so much as coughed, I got a horrible jolt of fear and a need to run. If anyone said they felt sick, I would immediately ask them loads of questions, and my whole body would freeze. I would make my excuses, leave and have to breathe and attempt to relax for at least ten minutes. I became anxious about what people would say or think.
This is what I wish people knew about having a phobia: it isn’t just being scared. It’s a physical reaction to something your body and mind view as danger, maybe even life-threatening. Shaking, crying, nausea…It’s almost like a panic attack that you experience at any sign of your phobia.
My treatment for emetophobia was one of the scariest things I’ve done, but it was all worth it. Me and my therapist compiled a list of things related to sick that would scare me, and we numbered them based on how scared I would be. I then had to work up the list, looking at pictures and listening to sounds, and learning to cope with the feeling of absolute fear and discomfort that they created. With each week, we worked up a level. After six weeks, I was obviously not cured, but I was loads better than when I started.
I proved to myself that I could do it, and I think this is really important to anyone struggling with a phobia. It does not make you weaker than other people, I would argue it makes you stronger. To overcome a phobia, or even work to challenge it, is something to be celebrated. People underestimate the immense strength it takes to do this. You are such a strong and brave person if you’ve come one step closer to overcoming a phobia.
Where we're at now
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Since realising the effect emetophobia has on my life, I have had person-centred therapy as well as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). In the process I learnt many techniques to calm myself down and ground myself, which inspired me to go on and train to become a counsellor myself. I will overcome this phobia one day, and I won’t let it affect my life anymore!
I still struggle with my phobia, and I still fear being sick and seeing anyone be sick. But I can say that I have come so far. I can now be in a room with someone coughing, for example, and watching new films doesn’t make me so uncomfortable. I still freeze when someone says they don’t feel well, but I am learning to cope with these thoughts. That’s something that’s so important to remember: It’s all a journey. Journeys have ups and downs, but we learn from them all.
If you do have a phobia, here are some things I wish someone could’ve told me when I was struggling:
- Your thoughts are not facts - the thing that’s scaring you might not be as bad as you believe. Someone being sick was never going hurt me, but my mind made me believe it would.
- It does not make you weak - Everyone gets scared. It does not make you weak, it makes you human. And being able to overcome this takes so much bravery and courage.
- Don’t be afraid to talk - everyone has fears, and maybe more people than you think have a phobia. It’s normal, and please seek help or talk about it if you need to.
Where to get help
If you are struggling with your mental health, you're not alone. For tips, advice and information on where you can get support with whatever you're going through, have a look at our find help pages.