Emetophobia: the fear of vomiting

Although no one finds it amusing to feel physically ill, the flu or any other condition that causes nausea and potential vomiting (e.g. pregnancy) creates particular difficulties for individuals suffering from so-called ‘vomiting phobia’ or emetophobia

Emetophobia is the excessive and unjustified fear of vomiting.

Although it may seem like a simple phobia, it can also be a symptom of social anxiety or agoraphobia.

It sometimes emerges in childhood and, if left untreated, can turn into a chronic problem.

There is also the possibility that it develops in adulthood, sometimes after a negative experience related to a health problem (e.g. after experiencing food poisoning or after having a severe and uncontrollable vomiting episode).

Emetophobia in children and adolescents

The consequences associated with the fear of vomiting can be extreme.

In children, fear of vomiting may result in refusal to go to school and avoidance of other public places.

Those who fear being nauseous or vomiting may avoid birthday parties, sports activities or dates, and even lunches or dinners in restaurants. Missing these activities may impair relationships and have a negative impact on social development.

Even if persistent social problems do not develop, the child with a vomiting phobia will still experience a lot of sadness, anxiety and distress.

Vomiting phobia in adults

Adults with a fear of vomiting may also be significantly impaired by their symptoms.

They may take more absences from work and avoid jobs that involve travel, jeopardising opportunities for career advancement.

They fear meetings, during which they may feel trapped, and avoid certain responsible jobs such as public speaking.

This may imply that otherwise bright and capable individuals remain in jobs that are below their real capabilities.

Emetophobia also affects pleasure trips and eating out and can devastate relationships.

Women with vomiting phobia may be extremely distressed by the thought of becoming pregnant and having the normal morning sickness, and some may even choose not to have children because of the fear of recurrent vomiting during pregnancy.

Clearly, this can have profound and lasting negative effects on an individual’s life.

What is emetophobia

Emetophobia is defined as an excessive or irrational fear of the act, or possibility, of vomiting and is associated with a number of symptoms such as:

  • Avoiding foods or smells associated with past episodes of vomiting.
  • Holding one’s breath when around people.
  • Avoiding rubbish and other smelly and dirty things.
  • Excessive consumption of vitamins.
  • Excessively washing food.
  • Excessively cleaning surfaces on which food is prepared.
  • Avoid unwrapped food.
  • Throwing away food before it has reached its expiry date.
  • Over-smelling and over-checking food.
  • Cook food more than necessary to kill potential pathogens.
  • Avoiding foods you have never tried (or becoming extremely anxious when eating foods you have never tasted).
  • Always eat the same (limited) foods to avoid stomach upset.
  • Avoid foods that seem ‘strange’.
  • Use antacids and anti-emetics beforehand.
  • Avoid eating outside the home.
  • Check where toilets are located (when away from home).
  • Limit travel away from home (stay at home, avoid social activities).
  • Avoid going to school or work.
  • Only eat food that other people have eaten before.
  • When eating in public, monitor other people’s reaction to food.
  • Worrying excessively about food allergies that have not yet been documented.
  • Avoid public speaking or other situations where being the centre of attention is required.
  • Avoid meetings or other situations in which one might feel trapped or situations in which it is not easy to get out in case one feels ill.
  • Avoid planes, cars, and/or public transport in order to avoid feeling trapped.

Rarely, however, do we encounter cases of fear of vomiting (emetophobia) that are really simple phobias.

Those who are terrified of vomiting are often affected by social phobia or agoraphobia.

The difference between these two conditions is that individuals with emetophobia associated with social anxiety cope relatively well with the idea of feeling sick in a distant or isolated place (e.g. walking alone in the woods).

Agoraphobic persons, on the other hand, might find the same circumstance distressing because of the difficulty of asking for help (if help is needed).

Thus, emetophobia related to social anxiety is mainly concerned with the social consequences (embarrassment, shame, etc.) of feeling bad in public, whereas agoraphobia is more concerned with the fear of not being able to get help or escape in this eventuality.

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