OCD & Emetophobia: Reclaiming Your Life
Between the coronavirus pandemic and flu season, the likelihood of experiencing upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting is at an all-time high. The truth is no one wants to be sick and this is especially true if you have a severe fear of throwing-up (vomiting). A “vomiting phobia” also referred to as emetophobia is a fear of vomiting that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race or ethnicity, economic or educational status, or religion or sexual orientation. It does not discriminate.
This phobia often presents during childhood, however, it can also arise during adulthood. If left untreated, emetophobia can become chronic or long-term. Adult-onset emetophobia may occur after a traumatic or negative gastrointestinal experience, such as a bout of food poisoning, severe and involuntary vomiting due to an illness like the flu or traveler’s diarrhea. Surprisingly, this condition is common.
In fact, studies suggest that emetophobia may be linked to other phobias, such as cibophobia (fear of eating), eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Although, emetophobia can affect your quality of life – it doesn’t have to. With proper treatment, you can live and thrive with anxiety disorders like emetophobia and/or OCD.
What is Emetophobia?
So, what exactly is emetophobia? It is an OCD-like anxiety disorder that involves an uncontrollable fear of vomiting or witnessing other people throw-up or becoming ill. This condition falls on a spectrum. You may be deathly afraid of becoming ill or it could be that simply seeing someone else vomit or “dry wretch” is enough to trigger or worsen your fear of vomiting. Even hearing someone vomiting or smelling vomit can kick-start your “vomit phobia.”
Emetophobia is rarely discussed and often misunderstood, in comparison to more well-known phobias like a fear of flying (aviophobia), a fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia), or a fear of spiders (arachnophobia). Although this condition is extremely prevalent, it is usually mocked, ignored, or dismissed – and rarely diagnosed. However, research suggests that a fear of vomiting is more common in females than males, although males are not immune to it. In fact, approximately 6% of females suffer from emetophobia, while only 3% of males suffer from it.
Emetophobia is extremely similar to OCD. For example, a 12-year-old girl presented with the typical OCD symptoms – non-stop intrusive thoughts and images about being “contaminated” from germs. This patient was reportedly fearful and anxious of anyone, anything, or any place that *could* expose her to germs that would “contaminate” her and make her ill. To avoid this catastrophe, she refused to use public restrooms, attend school, go to parties, celebrations, or other gatherings, go to amusement parks or concerts, or attend any events that *could* or *would* draw large crowds.
Most of the time, she stayed home – only going out in public when absolutely necessary. On top of that, the mere thought of eating at restaurants or even partaking in foods prepared by friends made her feel extremely queasy. Her mom’s food was the only food she could eat without feeling like she needed to throw-up immediately.
Moreover, this particular patient also had a habit of repeatedly washing her hands – to rid herself of the “nasty germs” surrounding her. The only thing that eased her relentless fear of being “contaminated” was washing her hands until they cracked and bled. The intrusive thoughts and images were her obsessions and the repetitive hand-washings were her compulsions.
What Causes Emetophobia?
Emetophobia or a fear of vomiting is usually caused by an aversive or traumatic “vomiting event” (i.e. a “nasty hangover” or severe gastrointestinal distress). However, multiple vomiting experiences, a separate medical condition, or medication can also trigger it. It is important to understand that you may have an elevated risk of developing this vomiting condition if you can vividly recall the vomiting event, if it was traumatic, lengthy, or uncontrollable, if you were embarrassed by the vomiting, or if it occurred in front of others.
Some researchers suggest that this condition may be linked to a severe fear of being out-of-control or a fear of not having control over one’s body and/or life. A fear of not being in control of oneself can be especially distressing to someone with a “vomiting phobia” because most times throwing-up is involuntary, sudden, and highly embarrassing – all elements that can make you feel out-of-control of your own body.
What Are the Symptoms of Emetophobia?
Listed below are the most common symptoms of emetophobia:
- Has a select number of foods that feel “safe” to consume – all other foods can spark a fear of vomiting are avoided at all costs. This avoidance of most foods may appear strange to onlookers, but makes perfect sense to the person with emetophobia.
For instance, a person with a “vomiting phobia” may refuse to eat salad because of a fear of salmonella and other pathogens (germs) but consume fatty, greasy foods on a daily basis, even though these foods make most people sick to their stomach, possibly leading to vomiting.
- Avoids alcohol, recreational drugs, and even over-the-counter and prescription medications if one of the possible side-effects is nausea.
- May deliberately eat slowly to avoid throwing-up one’s food. This individual may also avoid eating food or drinking liquids when away from home. Moreover, this person may decline to eat at work because the lunch break is only 30-minutes, which isn’t enough time to eat in his or her opinion.
- May avoid social events, bars, large gatherings, celebrations, and/or parties, where large amounts of alcohol and food (buffets) are served.
- May have a hard time making and retaining friends at work because he or she avoids work-related trips and after work get-togethers due to a fear of becoming nauseated while flying or while out with others.
- Females deliberately avoid getting pregnant out of an intense fear of “morning sickness.”
- Adolescents may refuse to go into their school’s cafeteria, gym, or the bathroom out of a fear that they will become sick in front of their peers, or witness a peer becoming sick at school.
- May become hyper-vigilant or reactive to a person coughing, belching, hiccupping, or even rubbing his or her stomach.
Note: Although emetophobia is usually diagnosed as a “specific phobia,” many of its symptoms meet the criteria for OCD, thus, some experts argue that it should garner an OCD diagnosis. However, other experts believe that although the two conditions are similar (emetophobia and OCD) they are actually two distinct anxiety disorders. It is also important to note that even though emetophobia symptoms vary from person-to-person, the most common symptom involves an extremely limited food intake that resembles avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
AFRID and emetophobia are similar in the fact that neither condition stems from a distorted body image or a longing to shed pounds. Still, emetophobia may involve noticeable weight loss, while AFRID always involves significant weight loss. And, AFRID is not linked to a fear of vomiting, which is a key component in emetophobia. Furthermore, both AFRID and emetophobia involve aversions to certain foods, specifically their textures, smells, tastes, or hues
Are There Any Complications Associated With Emetophobia?
If you have emetophobia, you may gradually develop complications similar to those found in other fears, phobias, or obsessions. In fact, the most common phobia associated with emetophobia is cibophobia (a fear of food). Cibophobia involves constantly worrying about whether or not your food was stored, prepared, or cooked properly. In other words, you are extremely afraid of getting sick from the food you consume (i.e. food poisoning). As a result, you may begin to severely limit what you eat and/or refuse to eat until you are actually full, opting to eat small amounts (bird bites) – to avoid nausea and vomiting.
Social anxiety and specific phobias like agoraphobia (a fear of certain places, people, and events because they make you feel nervous, worried, fearful, anxious, jittery, and/or out-of-control) are linked to people with anxiety disorders like OCD and emetophobia. People with emetophobia may avoid large gatherings and/or spending time with others because of their fear of vomiting in front of them. These individuals may also avoid friends, crowds, and social events because they are afraid that someone else may throw-up in front of them.
How Can Emetophobia Affect Your Quality of Life?
Emetophobia can affect your quality of life in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, society can, at times, be insensitive towards people, who struggle with phobias. In fact, phobias are often mocked by those, who do not fully understand them. It is important to understand, however, that phobias are real. More specifically, they can trigger panic attacks and severe bouts of anxiety, causing the sufferer to feel alone, depressed, and even more anxious because of the lack of understanding and compassion that often accompanies phobias.
Making and keeping friends can also be challenging for people with emetophobia. The fear of throwing-up in front of friends and family can prevent them from hanging out with them – i.e. grabbing lunch, going to a movie, etc. Because, these individuals are almost never available, potenital “friends” are no longer options. In other words, after a while, these “friends” move on, leaving you isolated and “friendless.”
Also, a fear of vomiting can cause problems at work. In other words, this fear can lead to multiple “work call-outs” or poor work performance, due to frequent trips to the restroom. Lastly, emetophobia can wreak havoc on your self-esteem and self-confidence. Having this intense fear can cause you to feel like something is seriously wrong with you – as a person. Sudden and uncontrollable vomiting can be extremely upsetting and embarrassing, so it makes sense that it could negatively affect how you see yourself. It can cause you to become ashamed of yourself and your behavior.
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Is Emetophobia Worse During Certain Seasons?
Like most phobias, emetophobia is a lonely condition. This is especially true during the holidays when most people are celebrating by eating, drinking, and gathering – behaviors that can trigger emetophobia. During the holidays, people like to spend time together at “house parties” and restaurants.
And, to top it off, during the winter months, norovirus becomes more prevalent. That is why the winter months are the hardest times of the year for people with a “vomiting phobia.” Holidays and specific occasions like birthdays, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Halloween, etc can be excruciating for someone with emetophobia. For instance, a person with this condition may avoid going to holiday parties because he or she can’t get certain thoughts and images out of his or her mind.
Some of the questions that can float through the mind of a person with this condition when asked to meet-up with friends at a local restaurant are listed below:
- What if someone with a virus or communicable disease used the knife, fork, and/or spoon before me? And, what if these utensils have not been properly cleaned?
- What if I sit near someone, who has COVID-19, but doesn’t know it?What if the food is spoiled or contaminated?
- What if the hostess, waitstaff, servers, or cooks have a communicable disease and came to work anyway because they have bills to pay?
- What if I become sick from the food or what if I witness someone else becoming sick from the food?
- What if the smell or taste of the food makes me nauseous?
- What if I am served an extra-large portion of food and I eat it and become overstuffed, leading to nausea and vomiting?
- What if I end up throwing-up in front of my friends and other diners, causing them to laugh and tease me? I’d be the laughing stock of the restaurant!
- What if I get food poisoning from the food and have to be rushed to the hospital?
- What if I become sick from someone else and pass it on to my loved ones?
- What if someone wants to share an appetizer with me? How can I recline without being rude?
The end result? A long list of “what ifs” infiltrate your mind to the point that it terrifies you to go to the restaurant, so you decline. You become so fixated on what *could* happen if you meet-up with your friends for dinner that you are unable to relax or sleep. Your fear of vomiting in front of your friends and others is so extremely upsetting that you are unable to move. So what do you do? You sequester in your home and do not come out until you know it is “safe.”
Then, there is social media. During the winter aka “holidays,” people love to post pictures of their celebrations and FOOD. Some of the food looks tasty but some of it looks horrifying – so horrifying that it triggers or worsens a “vomiting phobia” in some people. People also tend to post pictures of their young children spitting up food on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
Or, post about being sick or having a sick child. These posts can make someone with emetophobia super queasy – super quickly. For people with this condition, seeing those pictures and videos can be agonizing. How do they handle these situations? By avoiding most social media sites like the plague. But, because social media is used to connect, network, or catch-up with people, being left out-of-the-loop can be depressing and isolating, worsening the condition.
How Does Emetophobia Affect One’s Appetite?
Emetophobia can cause one to restrict his or her food intake, possibly leading to significant weight loss. More specifically, the fear of vomiting, for whatever reason, can prevent you from feeling hungry or thirsty. As a result, you may not feel like eating and avoid it as much as possible.
Deep down inside, you know that not eating can and will make you sick, but the fear of throwing-up is too powerful for you to stop the behavior. Your mind tells you that if you have little-to-no food in your stomach, you won’t develop a food-borne illness like salmonella, and as a result, you will not become sick and vomit.
Thus, your mind tricks your body into believing that you are not hungry, so you can comfortably restrict your food intake. Limiting how much food you consume is the only way you can calm your nerves and ease your angst. The thought process behind restricting one’s food consumption is that if you do not have much, if any, food in your stomach, you are less likely to become sick and vomit.
This belief (compulsion) is the only thing that can provide you with relief from the intrusive and frightening thoughts and images in your mind that are telling you that you will become sick and vomit if you eat too much or if the food you eat is “contaminated”). Unfortunately, it is common for people with emetophobia to starve out of a fear of vomiting.
Amy, a married 30-year-old mom of two, recently experienced a sudden drop in weight, from
130 pounds to 118 pounds within a month. Amy is 5’8 and the average weight for a 5’8 female is 126 to 154 pounds. Amy is now below the ideal weight for her gender and height. She realizes that she’s becoming too skinny, yet she still cannot bring herself to eat healthy, balanced meals on a regular basis.
Every time “meal time” rolls around, she becomes severely queasy and simply cannot eat. As a result, she has trained her mind to ignore the signs of hunger and thirst. The mere thought of throwing-up is so terrifying that she simply avoids eating as much as she can. In Amy’s mind, food is the enemy – an enemy she’d rather not “deal with.” When she does try to eat something to keep her strength up, she feels tempted to throw the food up (a common behavior associated with binging and purging).
Amy does not have an eating disorder, however, emetophobia is commonly mistaken for anorexia, bulimia, or binging and purging disorders. After eating a meal, Amy immediately feels nauseous, causing her to retreat to the bed, while her husband takes care of their two young children. When this occurs, she lies in bed for hours, trying to “calm herself down” so she doesn’t vomit. She can’t get the thought of throwing-up out of her mind.
Even the simple act of burping can cause her to jump up from the bed and run to the bathroom with sweat beads forming on her forehead and a clenching feeling in her stomach. She is sure that something “bad” (vomiting) is about to occur – even if it is not. Imagine not having control over your body. That is how Amy feels when her “vomiting phobia” is activated.
An even worse scenario?
Having OCD, emetophobia, and a “stomach bug” simultaneously. When you have all three conditions occurring at the same time, the fear of vomiting and the need to limit your food intake and clean excessively to avoid reinfecting yourself (due to the “stomach bug”) can be overwhelming. And, in some cases, it can feel like a life and death situation.
Can Being Around “Sick People” Trigger or Worsen Emetophobia?
Yes, being around sick people can trigger or worsen entomophobia.
When a person with emetophobia is around someone, who is sick or queasy it can throw him or her into “hibernation mode.” In other words, it can cause him or her to quickly retreat from the scene. It is important to understand that this person isn’t running away from the situation out of callousness, rather he or she retreats out of fear – fear of getting sick himself or herself. It is this fear of vomiting that causes a person with this condition to flee.
So, if a friend, loved one, acquaintance, co-worker, or even a stranger tells a person with a “vomiting phobia” that he or she feels queasy or sick, he or she will avoid that person like the plague. This condition is especially distressing for parents of young children because children, especially infants, toddlers, and school-aged children tend to get sick a lot.
A person with emetophobia’s worst fear is having a loved one, especially a partner or spouse or child or children with a “stomach bug.” Watching a loved one continuously throw-up is agonizing for someone with this condition. Now, imagine having to experience this with multiple loved ones – simultaneously. It’s enough to make anyone ill, but especially someone with a “vomiting phobia.” The truth is “sick people” can cause people with emetophobia to experience panic attacks.
And, when emetophobia is coupled with OCD, the person referenced above may excessively clean and hand-wash to avoid spreading the germs, contracting the “bug” and throwing-up. Because of the OCD, this person may “sanitize” his or her hands until they crack and bleed, repeatedly cleaning the sinks and toilets and scrubbing the floors as a way to ease his or her angst and prevent something “bad” from happening. Because of the emetophobia, this person may stop eating and drinking, so there is little-to-no food for him or her to throw-up.
Lastly, this person is likely to avoid his or her sick loved ones at all costs, closing up in his or her bedroom instead of caring for the ill. The goal at that point is to avoid getting sick and vomiting by any means necessary. To the sick, this may look heartless and uncaring, but the truth is this person is simply trying to prevent his or her fear of vomiting from overtaking him or her. This person isn’t trying to be rude – he or she has a disorder and is struggling.
Is OCD and Emetophobia the Same Thing?
No, OCD and emetophobia is not the same thing.
Although remarkably similar in many aspects, OCD and emetophobia is not the same condition.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized as a “type” of anxiety disorder that causes continuous and intrusive or distressing thoughts and images (obsessions) that can only be remedied by performing certain repetitive actions or rituals and routines (compulsions). For most, OCD is a never-ending cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Similarly, emetophobia is also a “type” of anxiety disorder, however, this disorder involves an uncontrollable and relentless fear of vomit or vomiting.
But, even though these are two different “types” of anxiety disorders, both have the ability to wreak havoc on your self-esteem, job performance, relationships, and quality of life. It is important to understand, however, that because, OCD and emetophobia are similar, symptoms may overlap between them.
For instance, a person with OCD will repeat certain rituals or routines over and over again, primarily as a coping mechanism. Performing a specific action eases his or her stress and anxiety. It is an involuntary action. He or she probably does not want to perform the action, but feels compelled to do so. In other words, this person feels as if he or she has no choice but to perform the action.
To this person, it is a matter of life and death. For many, anxiety occurs when a disruption or malfunction in the brain causes an individual to “fixate” on a particular person, place, or thing. This person, place, or thing becomes an obsession and the only way to rid oneself of the distress is to perform certain actions or rituals or routines. It is important to understand that these thoughts and images are not only upsetting, they are also continuous and never-ending. That is why it is so hard for a person with OCD and emetophobia to effectively stop the negative thoughts and images and manage the condition (without proper treatment).
Remember, anxiety disorders are largely involuntary. It is difficult, if not impossible to predict when an “anxiety attack” may occur. It is also hard to prevent them from occurring without treatment. For a person with OCD and emetophobia, the only way to stop the negative thoughts and images (obsession) is to engage in ritualistic behaviors (compulsions).
Living with OCD & Emetophobia
It’s December which means it’s time for lots of holiday parties – parties at work, parties with friends, and parties with family. It’s a time for pure celebratory joy – except for Troy. Troy is a 26-year-old man, who has emetophobia or a fear of vomiting. The truth is any occasion where there is lots of food and alcohol or even alcohol-free beverages is depressing for Troy. Why? Because, Troy equates food and eating and drinking with vomiting.
The mere thought of eating too much and becoming ill, eating food that has not been properly prepared, or even watching others become ill from eating food is almost too much for him to bear. It triggers his phobia, causing him to feel as if he is spiraling into the abyss of hell. It is that serious to him. Troy doesn’t know how the food was prepared or how his body will react to it, so he avoids holiday parties as much as possible.
But, when that is impossible, he simply does not eat or drink anything. In some cases, he pretends to nibble on food only to throw it in the trash when no one is looking. His fear of throwing-up in front of others trumps his need to eat or drink for a few hours. Troy also hates being around lots of people. He also hates crowds and large gatherings. Why? Because, in his mind, most people are “dirty.”
In other words, they are “contaminated” with germs because they do not wash their hands, clothes, belongings, or even bodies enough to be deemed “clean.” Troy genuinely cares for most of these people, so he doesn’t want to think that way about them, but he can’t help it. These thoughts and images stay in his mind 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are always there, affecting how he sees and interacts with the people around him. The only way he can “shut off” these distressing and annoying thoughts and images is to do something.
More specifically, perform certain actions like excessively and repeatedly cleaning, handwashing, and bathing, avoiding crowds, gatherings, celebrations, events, and parties, and preparing his own food. Troy is obsessive about cleanliness because the thought of “dirtiness” makes him feel nauseous. He tries to avoid feeling like he needs to vomit by taking these “precautions” or engaging in ritualistic behaviors (compulsions).
When Troy is “forced” to attend a celebration he makes sure he has lots of hand sanitizer on-hand and he avoids hugging or shaking hands with others. He also eats or drinks very little, if anything, and stays away from others – in case they become sick from the food and/or alcohol. He also can’t bear the thought of someone getting sick and throwing-up in front of him because of some “nasty food” he or she has just eaten.
So, he tries his hardest to find a secluded area and stay there – until the party is over. Once he returns home, he immediately starts his “cleaning process” until he feels confident he has rid his body of any germs. This is the only thing that eases Troy’s stress and anxiety and prevents him from feeling queasy and “dirty.” Troy knows his behavior is extreme, but he can’t help it. Performing certain actions is the only way he can get the thoughts and images to go away. But, it’s only temporary. They return the next time he is forced to go to the grocery story – or a gathering.
So, to sum it up, a person can have both OCD and emetophobia but they are not the same condition. More specifically, a person with emetophobia has an obsession or “fixation” with vomit and/or vomiting. He or she has a “vomit phobia.” However, a person with emetophobia can have a fear of vomiting or witnessing someone vomit because of germs or improperly prepared, cooked, or stored foods (i.e. food poisoning).
The way this person copes with these intrusive thoughts is by developing compulsive habits like only eating food or drinking beverages he or she has prepared at home, limiting how much food he or she consumes, or avoiding going to restaurants or attending parties or social events.
These ritualistic or compulsive behaviors alleviate the stress and anxiety a person with OCD and emetophobia feels at gatherings that involve food and beverages. Similar to OCD, emetophobics may wash their hands repeatedly until they dry-out, crack, and bleed because they are afraid of contracting germs that will make them sick.
Marissa is a beloved grandmother of six grandchildren. All of her adult life, Marissa has made a grocery list and made a trip to her local Walmart grocery store. And, all of her adult life she has dreaded this trip. Walking through the grocery store makes Marissa feel “dirty,” so she always tries to get what she needs and get out of there as quickly as possible. It is almost like Marissa can “see” the germs floating in the air.
And, now with the coronavirus in the air and on surfaces, Marissa’s OCD and emetophobia is at an all-time high. She is extremely afraid of contracting the respiratory condition that the mere thought of going grocery shopping throws her into a panic that culminates with a vomiting episode. If a person at the store coughs or sneezes, it immediately causes her stomach clench and sweat to form on her forehead.
She feels dizzy and disoriented and the only thing that can stop the spiral is running to the bathroom and washing her hands and face multiple times. She carries a can of Lysol in her purse to spray the bathroom to kill germs lurking in there and she even sprays her clothes with the Lysol to kill any germs hiding on her garments. She performs this ritual at least 3 times during a one-hour shopping trip that actually takes two-hours to finish.
Once she performs the ritual she is okay until she gets to the meat department, she hears someone cough or sneeze, or someone get sick or throw-up in the grocery aisle. Then, the cycle begins again. She becomes queasy and her fear of vomiting returns. Her only recourse is to once again run to the bathroom and begin the “cleaning process” again to decontaminate herself and her belongings.
Once home from the grocery store, Marissa washes her fruits and veggies exactly 25 times. She fears that her food is “unclean” and must be sanitized. If she does not wash her fruits and veggies exactly 25 times the thought of eating the “contaminated” food makes her feel faint and sick to her stomach. She is afraid she will vomit uncontrollably if she doesn’t perform the ritual. Marissa cannot eat the food until she knows they are “fresh” and “safe.”
For Marissa, cleaning the food one time is never enough. She must clean her fruits and veggies exactly 25 times to feel relief. Marissa knows that her thoughts and behaviors are unrealistic but she is unable to stop them. She is constantly afraid that she will become ill from eating “bad” foods.
Lizzy is a pretty and popular high school cheerleader, who struggles with OCD and emetophobia. From the time she was 3-years-old, Lizzy had urges to do odd things like sniff, suck, or lick her hands. Lizzy’s mother, Beth, even has videos of her as a kindergartner engaging in these behaviors (i.e. licking her hands). Even at a young age, Lizzy couldn’t figure out why she was doing these actions.
But, even then, she knew something was “off” with her behavior. It was embarrassing so Lizzy desperately wanted to stop it – but she couldn’t no matter how much she wanted to or how hard she tried. She felt like she HAD to do it or the negative thoughts and images would continue to pester her until she did. Over time, Lizzy learned how to hide her behaviors from others.
Once she hit high school, her emetophobia started to kick-in and she developed a “vomiting phobia.” Now, she can’t go into the cafeteria without getting sick to her stomach. The smells and the trash trigger her phobia, causing her to make a beeline for the nearest exit. The only thing that reduces her anxiety and makes her feel at-ease is washing up in the teacher’s lounge.
School administration is aware of Lizzy’s conditions; however, her peers are not. They do not know that Lizzy washes up in the private teacher’s lounge. But, engaging in these behaviors is necessary for Lizzy to function at school. She hasn’t told anyone about her OCD and emetophobia because she is afraid of how they would treat her if they find out. Lizzy is one of the most popular girls in school and doesn’t want to damage her reputation, so she hides her thoughts and behaviors from her friends and peers.
As a result of Lizzy’s fear of “contamination” and “cafeteria germs,” she performs this ritualistic behavior (repeatedly washing up in the teacher’s lounge) whenever lunchtime rolls around, causing her fears to manifest. The mere thought of going into the cafeteria triggers her nausea, so she simply avoids eating or drinking or going into that area until she can get home and prepare her own food in private.
As a result, Lizzy ends up starving most of the day. And, by the time she arrives at cheerleading practice she can barely function. She is weak and disoriented and cannot properly perform the cheers. The corrections she receives from the coach causes her self-esteem and self-confidence to plummet. She is disappointed and sweaty, causing her fear of vomiting to reoccur. Once again she runs to the lounge to “clean up.” She feels “dirty” and the thought of being “dirty” sparks her fears – and nausea. She feels like she’s about the throw-up. She can’t stop thinking about how “unclean” she is (obsession).
Lizzy tries to stop the thoughts, but the they won’t go away no matter how hard she tries to shut them out. The only thing that makes her feel better is “washing up” in the teacher’s lounge (compulsion). Once home, Lizzy scrubs her body in the shower for hours, crying because she hates what she’s doing and just wants it all to stop. But, the only thing that can stop the horrible thoughts running through her head is getting rid of the germs by cleaning herself over and over again.
If she doesn’t perform this routine she risks becoming sick and/or vomiting. She wishes she could talk to her friends about what she is experiencing, but she can’t. She is too afraid. What if her friends think she is weird and what if no one wants to be her friend because of her phobia? She can’t take that risk so she suffers in silence. She hides what she’s really going through because society attaches an unkind and untrue stigma to mental illness.
How is Emetophobia Typically Treated?
It is important to understand that it can be hard to detect, diagnose, and treat emetophobia. Why? Primarily because it can be difficult to distinguish exactly what anxiety disorder an individual has. Symptoms between anxiety disorders and phobias typically overlap, making it challenging to diagnose and treat a specific one. That is why it is so important to work with a “phobia expert” or a mental health professional, who is well-versed in anxiety disorders and phobias.
If possible, it is also preferable to seek a therapist, who has adopted a cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) approach and/or ET (exposure therapy approach). A CBT/EP therapist can help you address your fears and change your perspective on your OCD/emetophobia triggers, so they do not hold such power over your body or life. CBT/EP therapists believe that changing one’s thought processes can alter how someone behaves.
In the case of OCD and emetophobia, the belief is that you’ll feel less likely to engage in certain actions to combat your fear of vomiting if it no longer has a hold over you. Other treatments used to manage OCD and/or emetophobia are hypnosis, yoga, mindfulness and guided meditation, and deep breathing exercises.
These holistic/alternative treatments can reduce your stress and anxiety, so you don’t feel the need to perform certain behaviors to get relief. In some cases, anti-anxiety meds are also prescribed to reduce anxiety and quell compulsions.
The truth is both OCD and emetophobia affect people of both genders and all ages. No one is immune from them. Although, these conditions are treatable, if left untreated, they can cripple your life. OCD and emetophobia typically arise during childhood and persist into adulthood, but they are manageable with the proper treatment.
For some, one or both of these anxiety disorders occur after an upsetting or traumatic experience involving food or illness. An anxiety disorder or phobia can also stem from medications, eating disorders, or even a vomiting episode like a particularly “bad” or lengthy hangover session. But, regardless of the cause, a “vomit phobia” can have long-term consequences on your social and love lives, along with your academic and work performances.
These conditions can even impact your self-esteem and self-confidence, especially if they are out-of-control. OCD and emetophobia are lonely conditions because the majority of people hide these conditions from others – even loved ones, close friends, and doctors. This can lead to social isolation and depression.
If ignored or dismissed, OCD and emetophobia can rob you of a happy and successful life – filled with companionships, friendships, activities, new experiences, love, and joy. And, if you are a woman, it can rob you of a chance to have a baby (due to a fear of “morning sickness”).
People with OCD and emetophobia truly believe that if they do not vomit, something “bad” will happen and they will not be able to handle it. So, they often engage in ritualistic behaviors like excessively cleaning, avoiding people, places, or things that trigger them, or throwing-up to relieve the pressure of their intrusive and distressing thoughts and images.
The good news, however, is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Both OCD and emetophobia are manageable. You can have the life you want with the proper treatment. CBT and ET (exposure therapy) can help loosen the hold your fear(s) have over you, so you can have the life you deserve. You deserve to be happy and you can have that, but first, you must learn how to manage your anxiety disorder. Once you have accomplished this – the world is your oyster.
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