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Commentary :: Social Welfare
Emetophobia - Coping With My Inner Demon
15 Aug 2007
I was accused of having an eating disorder but the truth is, I have an eating phobia.
We all have our issues and mine is a peculiar one to say the least. I have a strange but common phobia that makes me afraid to eat. It’s called Emetophobia and very few “normal” people understand what it’s like to contend with this.

Emetophobia is an irrational fear of vomit and vomiting. The thought of vomiting is terrifying for us emetophobes. We know it can’t kill us and that no one likes to vomit, but we are scared to death of this act anyway. So scared that I won’t eat for a period of time if someone near me has recently had a bout of a stomach virus. As bizarre as it sounds this is a real phobia with a real name and is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. I hope this article will shed some light on what it’s like having this condition.

As far as I can remember, I always had a fear of vomiting, however, it never controlled my thoughts or changed my daily life until two years ago. I enjoyed living a normal life that included dining out and social activities without a lingering obsession that I would ‘get sick’.

During the past two years I’ve become anxiety stricken about vomiting rather than just fearing it. Drastic changes were made in my lifestyle to accommodate this fear. Some good and some bad. After a few months of panic attacks, I searched the internet and found out what I was experiencing was emetophobia and that a lot of people also have it. Folk singer Joan Baez, actress Denise Richards, and NBC Today show host Matt Lauer have publicly acknowledged their emetophobia.

So why am I’m terrified of something I know isn’t dangerous? That’s the nature of anxiety disorders. They are illogical fears possibly caused by stress. Some emetophobics suffer constantly. I have bouts of good days or good weeks as well as bad days or bad weeks. A bad day consists of a non-stop fear bundled with a loss of appetite and panic attacks. My good days are somewhat back to normal where the fear of vomiting still controls my thoughts…just not my life. There are certain situations that totally freak me out whether I’m having a good day or a bad day. They are:

* Gastrointestinal feelings such as heartburn, gas, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and acid reflux. Emetophobics equate these as symptoms of a stomach virus or food poisoning and after a while we no longer can tell the difference between normal digestive feelings and nausea. A simple case of intestinal gas may cause uncontrollable panic.

*Being in the same room or close enough to hear or see someone vomiting. Some emetophobics can’t bear to watch a vomit scene on TV or in the movies even when it’s fake. Severe sufferers can’t bear to say, hear or write the word “vomit” or any other words and euphemisms to describe it.

* If someone near me is sick with a contagious stomach virus. I am so scared of catching Norwalk Virus that I thoroughly researched it to find ways to prevent getting it. When I hear about local and nationwide outbreaks of this awful virus I tend to panic and will minimize going to crowded places for fear of catching it. “Norwalk Virus” or “Norovirus” are the worst English language words that you can say to any Emetophobic person.

*Finding out that food was past the expiration date or contaminated AFTER I ate it.

*Medications and medical procedures that may cause vomiting. I pleaded with the anesthesiologist to add an anti-emetic into the IV during a recent medical procedure because I heard that anesthesia makes people sick. I refuse to take pain killers unless the pain is intolerable because nausea and vomiting are listed as possible side effects.

*Touching an object that may have been touched or handled by someone who is sick with a stomach virus.

*Screwing around with me. I’ve had people jokingly describe vomit, pretend they were going to be sick, or tell me something I just ate was bad. This may be funny to them but it’s traumatic for me.

These situations often trigger panic attacks. If you have never had a panic attack then let me tell you, they are about as frightening as it can get. Panic attacks are more than just having that fear of something dire happening. They are physical as well causing chills, sweating, shortness of breath, trembling, nausea or those butterflies in your stomach, hot flashes, dizziness, numbness, and difficulty breathing. I usually end up crying afterwards because I hate feeling this way. Before I realized I had a phobia, I thought these panic attacks were heart attacks and that I was going to die. That’s how bad they are.

Since panic attacks often give us that nauseous “butterflies in your stomach” feeling, the fear of feeling nauseous makes us nauseous.

You might be an Emetophobe if…
There are habits that are unique to emetophobics. Some of them are irrational habits and some are actually good habits to live with but us emetophobes tend to go to extremes.

*Obsessive hand washing and sanitizing. I probably can tell you every brand of disinfectant and anti-bacterial soap out there. Better yet, I probably own every brand out there. Dry hands are common among us. Washing hands frequently is the best protection against Norwalk virus.

*Dietary restrictions. This is one of those irrational habits that emetophobes have. I have certain foods I won’t eat or won’t eat often because they could be carriers of food poisoning or I associate them with an incident of vomiting, whether it be my own incident or someone else’s. It’s not uncommon for emetophobes to have malnutrition because we are afraid to eat and therefore do not consume enough food.

Emetophobics are very fussy about how their meat, poultry or seafood is prepared and served. I became a vegetarian long before my emetophobia so that is one less worry for me. The portions of my meals has dwindled so I don’t feel bloated from overeating.

* Avoid drinking and hangovers. I drink occasionally but won’t have more than one drink or consume hard liquor. Emetophobes will do anything to avoid vomiting even if that means to give up drinking.

*Plethora of anti-emetic remedies. Pepto Bismol tablets, Alka Seltzer, Rolaids, Bonine, Unisom, ginger caplets, peppermint oil, and Gas X fill a shelf in my medicine cabinet. I even carry a travel size anti-emetic kit containing the above remedies in addition to altoids, ginger candy, hand sanitizer and a small plastic bag just in case IT happens. I never leave home without it. Strong mints, mint tea, ginger tea, and ginger chews are in my pantry.

*Shy away from banquets, eating out, family gatherings. This is where my life has changed the most. I always enjoyed eating out - going to nice restaurants but now I fear it. Eating outside of my home is minimal. My concern is that I have no control over the preparation of the food or cleanliness of the kitchen and the food handlers when eating in a restaurant or someone else’s house. If a restaurant has a funny smell, is shabby or looks dirty, I won’t eat there regardless of how great the food may be.

I usually order something light and won’t eat much of it. The overeating, bloated feeling is reminiscent feeling nausea. This will not just make me panic, but it will make me panic in public which is very embarrassing.

*Amusement rides. Emetophobes will avoid activities that can cause motion sickness such as roller coasters, freefalls, rides that go upside down or spin in a circular fashion. I’m not prone to motion sickness but I won’t go on those rides because the ride itself, scares me. But really, I’m not a bore in theme parks. Actually I love them and will go on most rides that are not listed above.

Why not seek therapy? It may not make sense but I’m afraid to be cured. What if being cured makes me less attentive of being clean and more vulnerable to vomiting? Also, I’ve heard horror stories from other emetophobics with terrible therapists. It’s been said that emetophobia is one of the harder phobias to treat.

On the bright side, I’m not a complainer and very few people that know me are aware I’m emetophobic. If you are emetophobic or know someone that is, the following physical and mental activities help me get through the days.

Following a healthy diet. I don’t eat much so I try to eat as healthy as possible by consuming a high fiber, low sugar diet. Being vegetarian means I incorporate fruits, vegetables and grains into my diet. I also include foods high in anti-oxidants and those that support my immune system. A healthy immune system makes me feel I’m less likely to catch an illness that could make me vomit. If I hear that a certain food or herb will lower my chances of cancer I tend to indulge on it. Cancer treatment consists of Chemotherapy which carries vomiting as a side effect.

Physical activity. It’s very important for me to keep busy. Not only do I feel better after a good workout, but it keeps my mind off of my phobia. In addition to working out, I enjoy tennis, karate, walking in the park, and many other activities and hobbies.

Meditation. Meditation helps me calm down from a panic attack, keeps me focused, and builds a positive attitude.

Mental activities. Any free time I have, which isn’t much, I take online classes. I don’t profess to be a good writer or even a descent one, but the writing classes have helped immensely.

So there you have it. It’s not easy living with emetophobia in a society fixated on food and drinking. If you have emetophobia or know someone who does and would like further information, check out the below web sites.

This work is in the public domain
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