Living with Emetophobia

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Living with Emetophobia

How a phobia of being sick can take over your life

Nobody enjoys being sick – that is a fact. It is an unusual sensation that humans do not feel comfortable with because we don’t feel in control of our own bodies. But for some people, the fear of being sick can affect their daily lives.

Emetophobia is a common anxiety disorder, causing individuals to have a fear of vomiting or a fear of witnessing others vomit. Around 6-7% of females and 1.7-3.1% of males suffer from the disorder, but it is almost unheard of. Emetophobia can also lead to further problems such as agoraphobia or extreme weight loss.

An Emetophobia questionnaire
An Emetophobia questionnaire

My experience with Emetophobia started when I was around 13. I had been a very healthy child and had little experience of being physically sick, but for a few nights one summer I felt extremely nauseous and panicked after dinner. I kept a log of the food I had eaten for a week or so, but could not find a plausible conclusion as to why I suddenly felt ill.

Me aka. the happiest and healthiest child in the world
Me aka. the happiest and healthiest child in the world

Throughout year 9 at school my sickness phobia gradually got worse. I stayed over at a friend’s house one night and felt sick, so then associated going away from home with vomiting. One night in bed at home I felt sick, so I associated lying down with vomiting. I would avoid doing so many things ‘just in case’, and often the panic associated with feeling sick would frequently make me actually vomit. When you get to the point where you can’t even go to bed without feeling ill, you know something is wrong.

The nausea is unlike any other nausea I have ever experienced. When you have a vomiting bug, you cannot stop yourself from throwing up. Likewise when you are drunk, it is almost impossible to stop and is happening before you have the chance to realise what is going on. The nausea that Emetophobia causes is very different. It can be sudden or gradual, and often causes a panic attack. One of the main symptoms of a panic attack is nausea, so experiencing both at once can be part of a vicious cycle.

My diet became very restricted, as I decided that if I had an empty stomach then I would not be able to vomit. Obviously you can still throw up stomach acid, which can be extremely painful. I would never eat breakfast, and would eat very little for lunch and dinner. I suffered from terrible headaches and was emotional and tired constantly. My skin was awful and my hair was thin and dry. At 5 foot 9 and weighing under 8 stone, my BMI plummeted. My school kept an eye on what I was eating, but the most obvious explanation for my eating habits was that I was anorexic. So many people are incorrectly diagnosed as anorexic when the root cause is actually Emetophobia. I had no desire to lose weight, it just happened as a side effect of a very restrictive diet.

Me (left) at possibly my lowest BMI
Me (left) at possibly my lowest BMI

I started struggling with entering certain situations or places in case I was sick. I would always try to sit as close to a bathroom as possible, and would panic if there wasn’t one available. I still to this day always sit on the end of a row in lectures and cinemas so that I can escape easily if necessary. I often sang in public concerts and would panic about feeling sick during the performance, therefore I wouldn’t eat beforehand to avoid it at all costs. However this would make me very weak and dizzy during the concerts. People would moan and tell me I was ‘always ill’ or that I always complained about having headache. Not realising that this all stemmed from my phobia, I felt like a nuisance. By avoiding large portions of food I would feel embarrassed, as nothing is worse than feeling rude for not finishing a meal that someone has made for you. More and more people pointed it out, and the worse I felt.

Eventually, after moving to a new school for sixth form, I started to feel better. So much better, in fact, that I began piling on the pounds because my appetite was trying to make up for the past few years. I discovered an article on Emetophobia, and was so relieved that this problem I had was actually fairly common.

Finally able to enjoy food and drink without the fear of being sick
Finally able to enjoy food and drink without the fear of being sick

Eventually I managed to stabilise my weight, and managed to drink alcohol without fearing the worst. I had very few panic attacks in the two years of sixth form, and completed with much better A-level grades than I would have expected from the GCSE grades I previously had obtained. I began taking propranolol to reduce the physical symptoms of my anxiety, and I now have a healthy BMI of 18.6.

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To anyone that finds a fear of vomiting is interfering with their daily life: do some research on Emetophobia, talk to others experiencing the same thing, go and see your GP, and most of all talk to your friends and family about it. Suffering with any anxiety disorder alone is no fun, and those around you can help, I promise.

Healthier and happier
Healthier and happier

@phoebedormand

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