Emetophobia Causes and Treatment

Characteristics of emetophobia

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

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What Is Emetophobia?

Emetophobia is the fear of vomiting, seeing or hearing another person vomit, or seeing vomit at all. It is a surprisingly common phobia. The phobia can begin at any age although many adults with emetophobia report that they have experienced it for as long as they can remember.

Emetophobia may also be related to other fears, such as a fear of food, as well as conditions such as eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Causes of Emetophobia

The fear of throwing up is often, but not always, triggered by a negative experience with vomiting. Although cases of the stomach flu, overindulging in alcohol, and food poisoning happen to everyone, it is easy to feel alone. The risk of emetophobia may be higher if you remember throwing up in public or experiencing a long night of uncontrollable vomiting.

Some experts believe that emetophobia may be linked to worries about lack of control. Many people try to control themselves and their environment in every possible way, but vomiting is difficult or impossible to control. It sometimes happens at times and in places that are embarrassing or inconvenient, which can be highly distressing.

Symptoms

Interestingly, most people with emetophobia rarely, if ever, vomit. Some report that they have not thrown up since childhood. Yet they constantly worry that it might happen.

Symptoms of emetophobia include:

  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of situations where you might encounter vomit
  • Disruption of daily life (you're unable to go to work or school, for example)
  • Emotional and physical distress
  • Nausea and digestive upsets
  • Panic attacks
  • Social isolation (you may isolate yourself from others due to the fear of being near people who may throw up)

If you have emetophobia, you may have developed certain behavioral patterns or even obsessions in an effort to keep yourself safe. For instance, you might be most comfortable in a particular room of your home, or even outside. You might sleep with a towel next to you in case you are ill overnight.

You probably feel compelled to learn the most direct path to a restroom in any new building. You may be extremely anxious about long car trips. Many people with emetophobia report that they feel safer when they do all the driving. Some are reluctant to carry passengers who might see them vomit if they cannot reach a restroom in time.

The nausea and digestive upsets people with emetophobia experience are common symptoms of anxiety and can lead to a self-replicating cycle. You are afraid to vomit, and the fear causes nausea and stomach pain.

Nausea makes you feel like vomiting, which in turn, triggers your phobia and makes you more afraid. Research indicates that this cycle may be the result of hyper-vigilant sensitivity to gastrointestinal symptoms and misappraisal of nausea and other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.

Complications

Over time, you might develop additional fears or obsessions. Cibophobia, or the fear of food, is common among many with emetophobia. You may worry that foods are not cooked or stored properly, which could lead to food poisoning and vomiting.

You might begin to severely restrict your diet or refuse to eat enough to feel full. Many people who fear throwing up feel that being full can lead to nausea and vomiting.

In extreme cases, people might even develop tendencies toward anorexia.

Many who live with emetophobia develop social anxiety or even agoraphobia, which is a fear of places or situations that might cause you to feel anxious, panicky, or out of control.

You might be reluctant to spend time with people for fear of throwing up in front of them. Alternately, you may be afraid that someone will vomit in front of you. It is not unusual to become highly afraid of other people’s vomit as well as your own.

Treatment for Emetophobia

Emetophobia can be somewhat complicated to diagnose and treat since many people simultaneously experience other phobias and anxiety disorders. Therefore, it is important to work with a trusted mental health professional with a broad range of experience. 

Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you confront your fears and replace your negative thoughts regarding throwing up. Hypnotherapy is another method that has been used for treating people with emetophobia.

During hypnotherapy, the therapist guides a patient into a relaxing, trance-like state. Once the patient is relaxed, their subconscious is more receptive to new suggestions about their fear—almost like reprogramming the mind to see your fear in a less scary way.

Medications

Medications may also be indicated in some cases. Your doctor might recommend an antidepressant such as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Some research has shown that benzodiazepines have helped people with emetophobia.

Gastrointestinal medications may be indicated to help with any physical symptoms such as nausea or digestive problems that perpetuate or exacerbate the fear.

Lifestyle Practices

In your daily life, relaxation techniques can also help. Practices like mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises can bring you into the present moment, reduce your anxiety and stress, and help you to better cope with your phobia.

Make sure you are engaging in self-care as well. Your overall mental health is supported by getting adequate rest, eating a nutritious diet, and incorporating exercise into your routine.

A Word From Verywell

It will take time and effort, but emetophobia can be overcome. Remember, there are resources that can help you such as therapy. Talk to your doctor. Together, you can make a plan of action. Know that emetophobia is treatable and you can find the help you need.

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