True Story: I Have A Severe Phobia


This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things.  This is the story of Michelle and her struggle with emetophobia – the fear of vomit.

Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m 28 and live in London with my boyfriend. I work as a freelance web designer, from home, which suits me well. There’s not much I do for fun these days, because of my phobia, but I used to love traveling throughout Europe and attending gigs all over the UK.

For those of us who don’t know, can you explain emetophobia?
Emetophobia is an intense fear of vomiting. Some sufferers may only fear themselves or others vomiting, but most, including myself, seem to fear both. Many people don’t seem to understand the phobia and will say, “well, nobody likes vomiting”. Of course, it’s far from pleasant, but a phobia is far greater than a general dislike

Despite it being listed as one of the most common phobias in the world, people don’t seem to know much about it. Unlike many phobias, you can’t run away from it as you would do from, say, a spider.

When did you first begin to have trouble with this? Was there a specific incident that triggered it?
Frustratingly, I can’t pinpoint an event that triggered my phobia of vomiting. I wasn’t a sickly child and I haven’t vomited since I was five years old. Even during my childhood and teenage years, I didn’t witness someone else vomiting or experience a traumatic event which would be connected to the fear. In my twenties I became more aware of a general dislike of vomit, but it wasn’t until I lost my job just over two years ago that the phobia really took hold. I think that was because I’d grown accustomed to staying at home and not having a reason, or money, to go outdoors. So things like getting on a bus to go to a job interview felt so much harder than a commute I took daily for years.

How does this affect your daily life?

The phobia has made a huge impact on my life. I try to avoid going outdoors in case I feel nauseous or am confronted with my fear. The further I travel from my home, the more anxious I feel. Situations where I feel trapped are what I try my best to avoid – for example: bus journeys, the cinema or simply queuing in a supermarket. I can’t remember when I last traveled on a bus and I took my first train journey in seven months last weekend. I’m lucky that I work in a field which enables me to work from home, because I definitely couldn’t face a commute, never mind being trapped in an office. I can’t go out for meals, travel, shop or socialize with friends.

Have you sought treatment for it?

Yes, I went to my Doctor two years ago and told her about my phobia. She referred me for six months of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and it didn’t help a great deal, unfortunately. The therapist tried exposure therapy (looking at graphic photographs), but that left me wishing to avoid it more. I’ve been on a waiting list since May to see another therapist and have had contact with the local “crisis team” in the mean time.

My Doctor also prescribed anti-emetic medication, which I take three times a day as a preventative. Considering I haven’t vomited in 23 years, I realize how ridiculous it is to take medication I don’t actually need, but I find it reassuring.

How do the people in your life react to your phobia?
My boyfriend has been really supportive, and so have most of my friends. They seem happy to visit me and spend time with me at home, and don’t force or guilt trip me into attending their parties, etc. Although, some people in the past have accused me of picking and choosing phobic scenarios to get out of doing things I mightn’t want to do. My family try to be supportive, but i don’t think they fully understand how big a deal this phobia is and that it’s quite serious. I went for a long walk recently and they asked me if I was “cured” when I returned.

What advice would you give to someone else struggling with a severe phobia?

I would say speak to your doctor and ask to see a therapist if the phobia is really severe. It’s best to talk about it with people you are close to, and don’t let it overwhelm you or make you feel stupid. I used to feel embarrassed when I had to explain my phobia, as I’ve had Doctors tell me in the past that I’m being silly because there’s “nothing wrong” with me.

Personally, I’ve found writing a blog has helped, but I’d suggest staying away from forums about specific phobias. I found that by reading about the fears and habits of others, I took them on myself. Exposure is also important – the longer you avoid the things connected to your fear, the harder it’ll be to overcome it. Try not to become reliant on safety behaviours (like me taking anti-emetic medication, for example), because they’re hard to shake off and they keep the fear going.

If you can’t afford or wait to see a therapist and have the motivation for self-help, there’s a great book called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook
that gives you lots of information and lots of practical help.

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Michelle.  Do any of you struggle with life-affecting phobias?

22 Comments

Anonymous

My 11 year old daughter has the same phobia and we have been working with her since December. It has affected her life profoundly. She has been in CBT since February but is still struggling with it. I wish you all the best in your journey.

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Alycia

i can relate and my heart goes out to you! i wish you the best in your therapy and progress because life is short and should be spent living instead of fearing the worst.

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Lauren

I think phobia treatment can be a really tricky area – at least in my experience. I suffer from blood/injury phobia, which I wanted to overcome because fainting can be embarrassing and unpleasant and was holding me back from a lot of thing (it's a bit of a different phobia to many because I am not scared of blood, but hate that I was born a fainter!). I spent money on expensive therapy that essentially did nothing for me – I think it even heightened some of my fears because I had a practitioner that was not experienced and really did not handle my problem as well as I had hoped. I was expecting a set of professional images/steps/opportunities, but what I got instead was literally a colleague of hers looking up 'blood' on a stock photo website and scrolling through the images, then being pricked with a needle. I didn't come out feeling stronger or like I'd achieved anything, but rather that I'd had stuff thrown on me in an uncomfortable, foreign environment, which cost a lot!

I honestly think in my case I could have achieved the same things/better results with strict self-exposure work, but the best thing I did was challenge this fear head on. I accepted a job at a dentist as a nurse/receptionist and have been tackling things day by day. At first just being there made me feel faint, clammy and totally anxious, but since then things have got better. I still don't enjoy some parts and don't consider myself 'cured' but doing this made such a difference. I can now handle all the cleaning and sterilising work, extracted teeth and all that other delightful stuff featuring blood and feel pretty ok! Not everyone has such opportunities, but I guess my message would be that therapy sometimes isn't the answer (especially if your therapist isn't an expert in the specific area you need!) and if you find it's not helping don't be afraid to say so and look elsewhere.

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Living, Learning, Eating

I can relate! This is obviously more extreme, but I struggled/struggle with a milder version and, at some points, it was pretty awful. I'm getting better at dealing with it, though, and I vomited for the first time in 6 years the other day (I accidentally gave myself food poisoning) and didn't even have a complete panic attack. Haha, small steps.

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Anonymous

Hi Michelle, your story is rather classic for a phobia patient. You have a long road of avoidance (both incidentally and with purpose) behind you, and each of the steps you took taught you that you are safe when you avoid certain things. This of course robs you from the chance to learn that you will also be safe when you do a lot of the things you don't do now. You are reassured by avoiding, say, going grocery shopping. You stay home and nothing happens. Body thinks that's the way to go and the behavior is reinforced. You'll be safe too if you did go grocery shopping, but you'll have to learn that once over again. You also never vomited in your teenage or even adult life, and thus never made the experience that it is unpleasant but bearable. I can't really say much about your therapist, but I find it strange that he/she did show you pictures of vomiting people and then leaving you within your fear. The rationale is that you get used to the idea again, like healthy people. For that to work, you can't be left with it before the fear decreases. It always does, as fear can not always be at a maximum. It is important not to avoid before the fear goes down, or else you'll again be reassured in your fear. It is also common (but not the only way) to make a fear hierarchy and than start getting used to the first thing, the one that elicits just a wee bit of fear, and when that is mastered move on to the next. I wish you success with your next therapist. Phobias generally respond well to treatment if the patient does. The key to improvement is (as slowly as one can) letting go of the avoidance behaviors. I know that is hard, but it's the way to go. You can do it!

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Astrid

I had exactly this! Its gotten a lot better with the eli of doctors and my 'puke kit' haha. Wherever I go I always bring a bag, Gravol, Gum and tums. It helps a lot knowing if i ever do get sick ill be prepared and it will be less embarrassing. Thanks for sharing this!

xox

astrid

agirlnamedastrid.blogspot.com

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Becky

I have mild emetophobia, too! Much milder than yours, but I get upset when people vomit on TV/movies, and I have minor panic attacks if anyone vomits in the same house/apartment as me. It makes me slightly germophobic, but not too bad.

I don't think about it unless I'm around drunk or nauseous people, or if I'm feeling queasy myself (heaven forbid).

It has influenced my choices somewhat. I limit my drinking, and I'm putting off getting pregnant til… later.

My husband actually got the stomach flu on our honeymoon! 3 days after we got married. He threw up so much and we both cried and cried. It was pathetic! 🙂

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Amy

I have a mild version of this phobia, too. I haven't thrown up for 16 years and I absolutely cannot handle others vomiting. I used to not be able to use public restooms by myself (or at all) out of fear, and I still get really anxious using bar bathrooms. Vomit is my biggest fear when I fly (not mine, others) and I don't put myself in drinking situations where someone is bound to get sick.

In short, I understand. I have been through some therapy to help, but I haven't been able to fully overcome it, and the thought of vomiting or being near someone who is vomiting paralyzes me with fear. You're not alone.

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Rose

Hi Michelle,

Thank you for being willing to share your experiences. I wish you the best with your coping and recovery!

I have a less-extreme fear of becoming dehydrated. I also have a fear of getting parasites through drinking too much water…weird, I know. How this manifests is that I avoid cardio exercise because I'm afraid the sweating will make me dehydrated. In my imagination this would mean I would get a headache, throw up, pass out and that would all trigger a depressive/suicidal episode (since I also have severe depression). Fortunately, I'm okay with less intense exercise.

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Mia Wallace

Thank you so much for sharing this! I've had a milder form of emetophobia since I was five (I remember the trigger very clearly) and only found out it had a name last year. I don't know anyone else who suffers from it, and people tend to think it's something you just need to suck up. If only it was that easy! I really feel for you, and I hope the people around you get better at understanding xo

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Michelle

Thank you everyone for your kind comments, and thank you especially to yesandyes for posting this in the first place. Everybody I know has been so understanding and lovely about the whole thing.

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Miss C

oh my gosh is all I can say. I wasn't going to read this post but for some reason I started skimming it and found my phobia described to me.
While mine is not quite as severe it still in affects my day to day life.
I haven't thrown up in 12+ years and hope so much that I won't be.
I worry about getting onto planes because of people getting motion sick, I am anxious about amusement parks and fairs for the same reason.
When a movie has a lot of movement with the camera I hope there isn't someone in the theater feeling sick.
I worry about going into public bathrooms and hurry when I hear someone cough or something. Actually I just try to get out of public bathrooms as fast as possible because I'm afraid I'll be in there when someone throws up.
I don't drink a lot, I don't go past tipsy, I eat a bunch when I drink to soak up the alcohol…
My anxiety and panic attacks would leave me scared that I was going to throw up, not that I was having a heart attack or dying.
If I read a facebook/twitter/blog post about someone getting a stomach bug I feel anxious even if they are miles and miles away and my body will feel like maybe 90% instead of 100%.
The comments other people left here are so interesting. I have yet to run into someone that explains how it affects their life like it affects mine until now.
People think I'm exaggerating when I say I have a phobia of throwing up.

Luckily this doesn't keep me at home, it doesn't stop me from going on planes and I still go out with people that are drinking.
While it is very, very hard for me to hear or see it happen to someone else, if I can figure out that it isn't contagious I am less anxious.
I worry about my first trimester a lot. I am no where close to having a baby but I still wonder about it and worry. I use to think I didn't want one but the main concern was throwing up in the first trimester, throwing up after having the baby and then the baby for the next 18 years throwing up when it gets sick.

It's nice to see other people experience this too. I wouldn't wish it on anyone ever, but realizing I'm not as odd as my mom makes me feel like I am is awesome.

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Stefan, Sarah and Lukka

This is so amazing–I have always told people this is my fear in life and they look at me like I'm crazy–now I know the name for it AND that it's quite common. I *can't handle* people getting sick around me though if I get sick (or my children get sick) it doesn't bother me as much.
I mostly get panic/anxiety attacks when others get sick around me (unfortunately, that has happened a lot in my past!) and I refuse to be around drunk friends. Actually just being around them while they are overly buzzed makes me clammy and I try to get out of the situation because they MIGHT get sick…even if they don't.
I also relate this heavily with flying because people get airsick, it's a tight, cramped, and stale place, and my stomach just gets in knots the entire time. I also cannot watch or listen to tv/movies where someone gets sick…I actually break out into a sweat and find my heart racing.
I can't believe there are so many others who also find that this happens to them! I think having children has helped a little bit with it, because when small children vomit it doesn't freak me out (gross, unenjoyable? yes, but they can't help it), but the odd chances my husband has the flu…I go stay at my mom's house (not a joke) for the night.
Sarah M

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Emily_ocd

I believe I suffer from emetophobia. I am 21 and first experienced this when I was 8. I can kind of cope with people being sick is poorly or myself being sick when drunk, but it's in a situation when I'm confined or in a quite place where, if I would be sick would be highly embarrassing. My parents and myself I have spent around £4000 on trying to 'cure' me , CBT has helped get through school and university but now going into the real world i don't know how to cope. I'm just glad I have my family around me.

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Anonymous

I see that some folks have already left comments about therapy (exposure in particular), but I wanted to add my thoughts as well. I am a therapist and have struggled with anxiety myself, and exposure therapy is absolutely the best-supported treatment for phobias, including emetophobia. One downside is that it's incredibly difficult – as you've experienced. It takes time, and it doesn't feel comfortable to say the least. However, if people doing exposure therapy are able to be really courageous and face their worst fears/most anxiety-provoking situations, the therapy is very effective.
From your description, it sounds like your therapist only had you look at photos of people vomiting. That's a great place to start, but if that's where treatment ended I'm not surprised it didn't help much! While I certainly can't give professional advice in a context like this (i.e. commenting on a blog), I would absolutely encourage you to give exposure another shot – perhaps with some self-help resources, or with a different therapist. The Association for Behavior and Cognitive Therapies at abct.org has a therapist finder that might be of some use; Google can also be helpful.
Thank you for sharing your struggle, and I wish you the best!

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Ella

Hi! I have this too, I only found out that it was an actual phobia about 6 months ago.
For me it's actually more about other people than myself. I fear getting sick myself, but I've developed techniques to 'survive it'. However I'm really afraid of being in situations with other people where I can't escape in case one of them is sick. In cinemas, college, parties, I’m always eyeing other people to make sure they're okay, and plotting an escape route. I'm planning a solo trip involving a long haul flight and I'm honestly terrified.
It's also a big reason that I don't eat meat and am a clean freak. I used to work at an entertainment venue and recently a kid got sick at a party. I didn't see it or hear it, my co-worker came over to tell me, but I left the floor, had a panic attack (making sure not to touch my mouth in case I had germs on my hands), then told my manager I couldn't work daytimes anymore (kids were only allowed in during the day). I’m avoiding customer service-related jobs from now on, just in case.
Like other phobias it probably seems selfish and silly at times, but it's way more than "oh I just don't like it".
Reading these comments has been really interesting, thanks for posting this.

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Phoebes

Hi Michelle,
Thanks for sharing your story – I can identify with some of your experience, although I don't have that particular phobia.
I am sorry to hear your therapy experience didn't work out but I want to encourage you to keep trying – find another therapist or support group and aggressively tackle this thing – other wise anxiety and phobia are running your life and limiting what you do.
Best wishes, Phoebe

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Jacqueline Pennington

My (11) daughter seems to have this phobia. This has really helped us to understand more. Do you have suggested reading that would be appropriate for that age or other advise.

Penelope

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Anonymous

Hello, I have this phobia. My counselor and I have found that my phobia began in my after school program (k-5th grade). At daycare, there were several situations that were specifically traumatizing to me.
1. My daycare thought that it would be "fun" to play a game which they named "Boogers and Vomit." the teachers mixed syrup with green dye for the "boogers" and made cereal wet to resemble vomit. (disgusting, right?) and the whole point of this game is to get these things dumped on us! There was a young child who claimed he felt sick during the game. He leaned over and started to make a gagging noise. I immediately ran as fast as I could inside the daycare building and hid in the bathroom. Soon after, a teacher (a very unpleasant one) came in and found me. She took me by the wrists and made me come back outside. I got into a lot of trouble because I didn't get approval from them to go inside. I felt extremely guilty afterward.
2. In the summer, my mother worked which meant I had to stay at daycare all day,every day. We often took field trips to various places. This time, we went to chuck-e-cheese. A child felt sick on the bus so the teacher gave him a trash can to sit in front of. At that moment, I was absolutely trapped. I could not escape that situation. I curled up in the fetal position on the back of the bus and covered my ears so I couldn't hear the child vomit, if he did. The worst part of this situation was having to exit the bus and walk past that trash can. I closed my eyes and walked as fast as I could. I begged the teachers to let me call my mom, but they wouldn't let me.
3. We took a field trip to the IMAX theater once and a teacher announced that she had motion sickness and would most likely get sick in the theater. I remember her joking about how "if she couldn't make it to the restroom she would vomit in her Pepsi bottle." I sat and cried and covered my ears because I was so afraid that she may vomit at any time.
My fear deals specifically with being trapped and unable to escape a situation involving vomit. This phobia is especially difficult because the chance that someone could vomit is everywhere. Anyone at any time could vomit. Vomiting in movies has become so common that I feel the need to google movies before I see them to see whether they have any vomit scenes. I have been switching channels before and seen someone vomiting. I do get panic attacks at the sight of vomit, even on TV. My phobia is odd, as I do not experience panic when an infant or animal vomits. I went to a small private school(K-12) and graduated with the same people I went to kindergartens with, for the most part. I was constantly bullied because of my phobia during school. People would make gagging noises at me and write "barf", "gag", and "puke" on sticky notes and attach them to my locker. This phobia is very misunderstood, and hard to deal with. I have never heard of anyone in my town or nearby having this phobia.

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Liz

I have a fear of being replaced. I also can't go anywhere without my phone because I fear being stranded somewhere, or in some sort of danger, etc. It affects my life in that that people do not often understand it and find it to be a mere obsession with needing my phone. But I freak out if I don't have it/it dies/etc. and start to worry about all the horrid things that could happen.

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Kierstyn Bock

Hey Michelle I am doing a project in my class. I’m in 7th grade I am 13 yrs old my project is over people with phobias.I told my friends about my project and they just laughed and said that it was a stupid subject i picked. I have trypanophobia, which is a fear of needles. I have ran out of a doctors office just from watching my brother get a shot. I know it may sound stupid but it is true. The last time I got a shot I had to get held down. I really want to get over this fear I hate getting held down every time i have to get a shot. I happen to come across your story and felt really bad that you have this phobia.I told my friends about my project and they just laughed and said that it was a stupid subject i picked. I read about a little girl who was 8 she got a phobia of going to the dentist after her dentist accidentally cut her tongue on her monthly check up she didn’t open her mouth after that. She ended up dying in her bed from starvation and dehydration. The truth is people don’t know how serious this is. I want to get your story out along with the 8 yr old little girl. The rest of this message goes out to the other people who commented on Michelle’s story who have phobias of their own. I am so so sorry that you all have these phobias or this one in particular. I hope you all find a cure along with Michelle. I will pray for all of you. You all are in my heart-KB

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Lucinda

I have the same phobia, it’s real – and I don’t like telling people because I get some really weird stares when I do. I once had to tell half my class because there was a “find someone who has a phobia” task during an English lesson, the disbelief was clear.
I already made the safety measure mistake. I rely on my earbuds that block out any possible sounds of gagging, and I’m becoming dependent on them.
One of my family members probably – I don’t even know for sure – vomited when he came home one night and I haven’t been okay ever since. I had emetophobia before but I only developed these avoidance patterns that mess with my sleep cycle and my body in general lately. My brain associated him going to the bathroom and putting the toilet seat up with vomiting so I get absolutely frightened everytime he goes in there. I manage to stay away from the music during the day and listen to it only when I want to. The night is a different story. I regularly spend all evening with my ears plugged, sitting on my bed and checking the bathroom door from there so I can turn the volume up if he goes in there. I worry I wouldn’t make it in time if I just put the phone with the earbuds on my bed next to me.
My brain has also developed a sense of danger associated with that bathroom door and footsteps so I wake up everytime I hear someone walk around. I’m also too frightened to fall asleep before everyone else goes to bed and the lights go out. Once in bed, they’re probably okay, right, and I would hear the door open in the absolute silence so I would be able to reach for the phone. That shortened my sleep from a good eight hours to six a night.
I also once went to a common toilet to pee when I was on a ski trip with my class. And I had this classmate who said earlier that her stomach couldn’t hold eighty percent of the food she ate so I dreaded going there because of possibly running into her. Well, I sat down on the toilet and then I heard someone going to the other stall. I literally asked “who’s there” and when I didn’t get an answer I assumed the person was sick so she couldn’t talk. I didn’t even start what I went there for and I just got up and ran away.
It wasn’t even her, it was another girl, as I found out after a while. Unnecessary panic.
The funny part is, I don’t even know what scares me so much about it. Maybe it’s the fear itself, I don’t really know.

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