Monday, November 15, 2010

OCD and Emetophobia: Fear of Throwing Up

After Dark: Fear

Emetophobia is part of my health anxiety history. When I was 11, I got sick to my stomach, and my mother gave me some sort of medicine from a cold spoon, and I promptly threw it up. Maybe I wouldn't have reacted as strongly, if she hadn't given me another spoon of medicine a few minutes later, and of course, back up it came. I vowed from that moment that I would never throw up again. I kept my vow for over 12 years, but this vow came with a cost, as it was intertwined with my OCD. If I felt the slightest twinge of stomach discomfort or nausea, I would keep checking the sensations, trying to figure them out, diagnose them, and this would make my stomach even more tense and uncomfortable. Then I would start drinking water, with the idea that I could dilute the toxins with fluid. I'd be up all night, drinking glasses of water and unable to sleep because of my hypervigilance.

Finally, I ate something that was truly toxic, and my body wanted it out, and I threw up at age 23. It sucked. But once it happened, it was over. The phobia is never "over"--it will expand to fit whatever room there is in your life. I feel sad when I read about people with emetophobia who restrict their lives more and more in order to avoid all possibility of getting sick, or of their kids getting sick. The difficult thing is that most people hate throwing up. It's easy for this phobia to slip under the radar, since it seems logical to avoid getting sick. But a phobia will impinge on valuable things in your life. No trips because you might catch something. No parties. No eating out. No leaving the house.

I could never have predicted what made me sick at age 23. This is the sucky thing about being human. We get sick. The world isn't a clean place. Exposure therapy for emetophobia isn't about making someone sick. This is the first thing people think of when imagining treatment. Exposure therapy is about doing those things you are avoiding because you *might* get sick, and not doing rituals like constant sanitizing and hand washing. If your first thought is, "Well, I'll never get treatment, because if I have to take the chance of throwing up, there is no way I will do that"--I encourage you to think about all you are losing to this fear. If you get sick, you will deal with it then. You are stronger than you think.


  1. I had this too! This was probably the first thing that my OCD wrapped around when I was a kid. I CONSTANTLY had a stomach ache. I was constantly monitoring my phsyical sensations. I remember when I was about 10 - I had a friend over and we drank some grape juice. We then went downstairs to play and she vomited up the grape juice. Not only would I not play with that friend for weeks, I wouldn't drink grape juice, and I wouldn't sit on the sofa that she threw up on!

  2. This is a rough one, definitely. I hate doing it myself, and hate being around it. But it is much more from a perspective of being afraid of illnesses in general than the actual act of being sick. There are so many ways that phobias and OCDs can hem in our lives - I feel a renewed desire to go out and keep fighting them. :)
    Adventures in Anxiety Land

  3. After posting this, I had a message from Anna Christie, who has a counseling practice for people with emetophobia and does exposure therapy, and who suffered from the fear herself and has overcome it. Check it out at:

  4. Great to be back online again. Thanks for checking in with me, expwoman. I had this one bad for many years. I thought I was the only one in the world. It slowly faded away over the years. Probably my alcoholism helped since I vomited drunk so many times, and when I was drunk, nothing bothered me. I guess it was a form of exposure.

    My eight year old daughter developed this recently. Then I learned that it is inherited. I know I didn't give it to her in the environment, since I don't have the fear, and haven't since long before she was born. She isn't even a worrier, but she's a "picker" and has been since she was 2. So fascinating. My greatest reward in all this is that with all of my recovery, I know how to help her, and not contribute to it.

    Thanks for writing about this topic.

  5. Kinder--It is so cool that you know how to help your daughter rather than hinder her--that is a true gift.

  6. For me, the after-effects of witnessing someone be sick are the worst. Intrusive circular thoughts like "did I sit next to this person before they had symptoms and catch what they have?" torment me for hours or even days. I usually get severe diarrhea and nausea from the stress alone. Afterward, I feel so depressed that I want to die. This has been going on since I was 2.

    Both OCD and emetophobia can have similar symptoms, such as compulsive hand washing. I ended up in the psych ward as a teen for washing my hands until they bled. The docs immediately thought "OCD", but it was actually caused by emetophobia in that instance.

    In general, stressful situations intensify OCD symptoms. It is, after all, an anxiety disorder. The stress of people being sick takes my OCD symptoms to new heights.