Who amongst us likes being sick? Not a one, you can bet. For some people though, vomiting, seeing other people vomit or being around people who are sick is just about intolerable and is a recognised mental health condition.
Emetophobia is ranked by the World Health Organisation as the sixth most common of all known phobias, yet so little is known or understood about how it develops and what it can actually do to sufferers. Here are all the facts:
What exactly is it?
Put at its most simplest, it’s a fear of vomiting. However, there are sufferers of the condition who maybe do not fear themselves vomiting, but cannot bear other people being sick (perhaps their children or other family members), or being around people who have already been ill. Very often sufferers will have a combination of all of these elements, but not always.
The condition can start to affect every area of the life of the sufferer right from the simplest tasks such as breathing, eating and sleeping, through to more social aspects such as going out in public, eating out or meeting friends.
Not a stand-alone illness
Emetophobia also contains elements of other mental illnesses such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the eating disorder Anorexia, mainly due to the eating problems that occur. However, while an anorexic may refuse to accept that they are underweight, an emetophobe will recognise they are too slim, but feel unable to increase the amount they eat in case it makes them unwell.
Sufferers may experience fears of contamination, and need to keep their hands, faces and bodies scrupulously clean at all times, as well as everything in their homes, particularly the kitchen and bathroom.
They may carry anti-bacterial hand gels and wipes with them as a measure of “infection control” when they are outside. They may not want to touch door handles especially in places like public toilets (though many emetophobes may avoid public conveniences altogether for fear of contamination).
Eating can present a major problem and varies from sufferer to sufferer. Some people live on a very restricted diet that mainly consists of plain carbohydrates, potatoes, toast etc. Some may avoid foods of a certain colour, for instance anything orange, red or brown. Some may just simply avoid anything that has a “known” habit of causing food poisoning, like shellfish. It’s common for emetophobes not to want to eat out, and perhaps only eat food they have prepared themselves.
Eating food can present it’s own challenges, as very often handling food such as sandwiches or crisps means that the sufferer might only eat to where the hand or fingers has grasped whatever it is, then the rest will be discarded.
Sufferers are sometimes known to sleep sitting up, as they fear lying down might make them ill, some sleep with a bucket at the side of the bed “just in case”. Travelling anywhere may present problems, and emetophobes may take does of anti-sickness medication to prevent any illness.
There are some sufferers out there who haven’t ever vomited in a great many years. They will do anything to avoid it, starvation diets, not taking fluids on board, sitting bolt upright and still until the feeling passes. However, some sufferers do report episodes of illness just as normal, which can sometimes result in a temporary worsening of their symptoms.
It’s a very difficult to explain emetophobia to the general layman and can also be difficult to get treatment for. Sitting on the therapist’s coach and talking to a qualified professional can help, as can traditional therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy.
However, providing exposure to this as a form of treatment is very difficult. Many years ago, the favoured means of making sufferers confront their fear was to present them with something called a “Vomit Video” which is, as you’d expect, a video featuring footage of people being sick and the sounds of people being ill. This can work for some sufferers, who reported afterwards that their fears were greatly diminished, but for others this was not the case and in some instances it was even made worse.
Dr Angela Davidson something of an authority on the subject and she has put forward an argument basing the root of emetophobia in something called the “locus of control”. Put simply, an emetophobe more or less wants to have complete control over every aspect of their life to prevent “bad things” like vomiting happening to them. Vomiting is seen as a loss of control; therefore it is bad and has to be stopped at all costs. Once the reasons for this wanting to regain control over everything in life are established, only then can treatment succeed.
What to do if you recognise these symptoms
If, after reading this you think you might be a sufferer, or know you already are, the first point of contact is your GP, or other health practitioner who will be able to offer practical help and hopefully Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to begin with. In addition, if the emetophobia has severely restricted eating habits, sometimes speaking to an eating disorders specialist and a dietician can be very beneficial. Some sufferers report good results from seeking a properly accredited hypnotherapist. The more people that raise awareness of this condition, the better the chances are of improving treatment. Don’t be afraid to speak up!