The Reality of Emetophobia and How I'm Beating It

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One of my most mortifying memories — one that I am immensely ashamed of — involves abandoning a friend when they needed help.

I’m not sure how old I was — early teens for sure. Having spent the day in the local town with two friends, we had some food and then hopped on a bus to go back home. It was uneventful for the most part until, quite suddenly, one of my friends doubled over and threw up spectacularly down the aisle of the bus. The driver pulled over, my friend stumbled off and proceeded to continue emptying her stomach onto the pavement. Afterwards, she refused to get back on the bus and tearfully asked us to wait with her until her mum showed up. I hurriedly pointed out that they had a small family car and would not be likely to fit all of us in it, so it would be best we meet her back home. As the bus pulled away, I felt a dozen pairs of eyes burning into me; what kind of monster would do this?

It’s not an easy memory to share but it’s an important one, because I feel it truly underlines the severity of a specific phobia, and the shame that comes with masking it. You see, rather than fearing a transport-related conundrum, I simply couldn’t be around anyone, friend or not, that had been or was at risk of vomiting. Now this isn’t your standard “ew, that’s gross” reaction. Since I can remember, any incidence of vomiting has sent me into a blind panic, and I’ve often become so distressed I lose consciousness. As soon as I told my parents about it when I was a pre-teen, they both told me it was normal to dislike throwing up and to stop worrying about it, so I hid the extent of my phobia for years.

It’s called emetophobia, and is specifically the extreme fear of vomiting, or being around people doing so. At its most intense, people who have it are unable to even read the word itself, instead using v* as a shorthand for it. When I think about some of the things I have done to avoid being sick, or to get away from a situation where someone else may be sick, I realize just how real a phobia this is. Once, I got off a train at a station in the middle of nowhere at night, just because I heard someone in the same carriage say they felt like throwing up. I can count the number of times I’ve tried seafood on one hand because I once read it can be notorious for causing food poisoning. I’ve concocted excuses upon excuses to avoid car sharing on long journeys with people who admit to suffering from travel sickness; in cases where it’s unavoidable I’ve pretended I myself get ill and have to listen to music loudly through headphones to counteract it — of course, this is a foil for not having to hear any potential sickness. In reality, I’ve never once been travel sick.

There was a point I just believed I was really strange and nobody could possibly help me, because I was a “freak” that panicked over something so ridiculous. For years it affected my life in a number of ways from my relationships, to my social life, to how I interacted with others. My breaking point came when planning our wedding and we began wondering when would be the right time to start a family. I remembered reading somewhere that how your own mother fared in pregnancy was a good indicator of how you might do yourself. My Mum had already informed me her morning sickness had been fairly graphic for her first trimester, and so I reluctantly went to see my GP. I didn’t know why I was there to be honest; I think I’d deluded myself into believing they’d just hand me a prescription to make sure I didn’t get sick. What happened instead changed my entire life.

My doctor was talking about pregnancy sickness, and how vomiting is completely normal, and so on. I could feel my heart rate beginning to edge into my “danger” zone – this isn’t a Kenny Loggins place of 80s fun, rather when I become so panicked that I risk fainting. Before I could stop myself, I shrieked: “Please! Stop saying vomit!” I then cried, a lot. My doctor gently leaned forward and placed her hand on my arm. She told me it was highly likely that I had emetophobia, a common anxiety disorder that needed treatment. This was a woman with a medical degree, a working general practitioner, not someone in an echo chamber on the internet.

And so, after I was married in 2012, I began cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatment for emetophobia. It began with a 12-week course for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) which had previously just been controlled with medication. In total, I spent 32 weeks with a therapist. The result was quite something; no longer did my husband have to “vet” films or TV shows beforehand for scenes involving vomiting, nor did I have to sit with my hand hovering over the mute button just in case. I no longer felt completely and helplessly panicked if a co-worker complained of a sore tummy.

Unfortunately, I still felt gripped by terror when it came to the idea of dealing with being sick myself, but the mental health team said it’d probably get better in time and upped my medication. I didn’t want to accept this. I’d spent so long thinking I had an imaginary problem, that now it’d been validated and I knew it was treatable, I wanted to find another way. This is how I came to find the Thrive Programme.

One month after I finished a six-week course with a Thrive consultant (yes, just six weeks), I found out that I was pregnant. My husband and I were delighted and I honestly didn’t think twice about what digestive fireworks might be ahead. Ironically, I ended up on medication to control my 24-hour nausea that was so bad I spent hours each day heaving. That’s not an exaggeration, even water would set off my gag reflex – my body had become so used to fighting off the act of vomiting over the years that it had become instinctive.

I finally broke my streak — emetophobics often refer to how long they’ve gone without throwing up as streaks — when my little boy was nine months old and all three of us caught norovirus on my husband’s birthday. That’s a hell of a bug I tell you; no instinct in all the world was holding that back. I wish I could say that it was like a chorus of church bells that heralded a new start, but I honestly just wanted the sweet release of death.

The good news is that my husband felt that way too. I’m not a sadistic wife, I promise. The realization that self-pity in the face of such powerful bodily functions was completely normal was a striking one. It was also a great learning experience; it really is over so quickly, rather than the long drawn-out process I’d imagined it to be.

It is now approaching my son’s second birthday and I am currently working with my Thrive consultant again for a “top-up.” I’ve not gone into full relapse, but the first winter with my toddler in childcare has resulted in him bringing home a fair few nasties and the relentless nature of it has shaken me somewhat. I noticed some old behaviors sneaking their way back into my life and if there’s anything I have learned about handling phobias, it’s that recognizing your own limiting behaviors is something you need to do before you even set off on the journey. I’m confident that I’ll get to a place where I can say “I used to be emetophobic, but I am not anymore,” as I have been before. Maybe I’ll have other bumps in the road through life, but I intend on doing all I can to prevent relapse.

If you are living with this phobia, please know that you are not alone, it is real, and you can beat it. There is a version of you that can go days at a time without spending even a nanosecond thinking about the noises your stomach is making. There will be a time you can choose something from a menu without a second thought – you’ll choose based on what you want.

Emetophobia is apparently very common; according to Anxiety UK around six to seven percent of women have it and around one to three percent of men. Yet I went years without even hearing the word, silenced by the stigma and the cries of “that’s not a real issue, nobody likes being sick!” which would keep me prisoner for most of my adolescence.

Don’t suffer in silence, I promise you that it’s real, it’s taken seriously, and you can beat it.

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How My Anxious Mind Works

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I fear confrontation.

Confrontations give me this overwhelming feeling a huge wave is about to fall on me and I must truly stay quiet. Ever since I was a child, I had problems expressing my discomfort. I always felt people would be so hard on me that I wouldn’t have the strength to keep going. And now in my 30s, I can’t still get over that. When someone needs to clarify something with me, even if it’s a tiny thing, my hands won’t stop shaking and my heart will feel like a hammer. My terrified eyes will betray me all the time and I will feel so disoriented that the guilt for acting poorly won’t leave me alone.

I’m terrified all the time.

“Terrified” is the right word and so is the phrase “all the time.” I am not overreacting, I am always living in terror. If a tiny thing happens, my mind will carefully lead it to become an imminent catastrophe and my mind won’t let me live in peace until I “solve” the problem. I spend my life trying to solve problems I don’t know how to solve. This never stops since a thousand things happen every day and an anxious mind doesn’t need anything special to create a nightmare. I always live as if the worst danger were out of my house and I have no idea how to face it. I am always thinking about it as if a monster is waiting for me. When you have anxiety, you feel like there’s someone chasing you all the time. You just want to hide, but you never find a place.

I fear I will never have the life I want.

I see myself with a family in the future, but how am I supposed to face these challenges and the ones to come if I can’t face them now when I am single? How am I supposed to make a child feel safe and a husband happy if I am always shaking inside?

It’s discouraging. I feel disappointed, resigned, angry, sad and like I’ll never win. I haven’t learned to live with this and even though I try every day, there’s something inside me that whispers “You will never make it.” I try to understand this is part of  anxiety, but I can’t help believing it.

I sometimes feel like a leaf in the wind who goes whatever direction the current takes me, with no power. I’m tired of crying, tired of being terrified and tired of carrying these voices to wherever I go. Sometimes I wish I could turn off my brain and the voices and the terror and feel free for once in my life. But I have to keep fighting. I have to stay grateful for being on the road, able to see sunsets, have books and have friends who are going through the same. Their bravery gives me the power to continue, even if anxiety tries to proclaim itself the winner.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Berdsigns.

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The Silver Lining of Living With Anxiety

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For as long as I can remember, anxiety has been a constant in my life. I remember throwing up from anxiety often throughout my childhood and into adulthood. I remember laying awake at night, fearful of bad things that could happen to me. My heart always raced too fast — it still does — and my stomach is always churning. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have been a part of me since the beginning.

Anxiety for me is overthinking each thing that happens in my day. Anxiety for me is feeling sick to my stomach. Anxiety for me is being restless and jittery.

Anxiety for me is a tightening feeling in my chest. Anxiety for me is intrusive thoughts and compulsions. Anxiety for me is excessive apologies.

Anxiety for me is also in the form of dermotillomania – picking my skin until it bleeds. Anxiety for me is excessive doubt.

Anxiety for me is never quite feeling good enough. Anxiety for me is feeling the need to self-medicate. Anxiety for me is feeling trapped under a tidal wave of fear.

Anxiety for me is torture.

But then again, there are good things that have come from my anxiety.

Anxiety has made me more empathic towards others’ situations. Anxiety has made me truly appreciate moments of calm and tranquility. Anxiety has made me grateful that bad things aren’t actually happening and that most of my worries are in my head.

I might even be able to say that anxiety makes me creative — some of my best writing and art has been produced while I am trying to calm down my anxiety. I also credit anxiety to the reason I’m never late for an appointment or meeting. Anxiety has helped me organize my schoolwork. So in many ways, I can be grateful to have anxiety in my life.

Anxiety disorders are definitely not easy to live with, but I suppose there is a silver lining to every cloud.

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Anxiety Made Me Realize My Worth Isn't Measured by My Grades

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I’ve always been known as a “high achiever.” People expect me to consistently get amazing grades and I came to expect that of myself too.

Naturally then, people expressed concern when my grades began to drop and I was taking part in more activities outside of lessons. However, what they didn’t realize was the relationship between the two did not follow the pattern they thought. My grades were not dropping because I was doing more outside of school. I was doing more outside of school because my grades were dropping. The fear of failure had become so great I was unable to review for exams. It became an achievement if I managed to sit in the exam hall for the duration of the paper.

For too long I had largely based my self-worth on percentages and letters of the alphabet. So as my anxiety increased, the percentages and letters went down and so did my sense of value. Except this seemed to decrease at a much greater rate.

What was I worth if I was failing in school?

I’ll let everyone down.

I’m a failure because I can’t get the highest grades possible.

There wasn’t much point in trying to make people proud, because I wasn’t going to manage it, no matter how hard I tried.

But then I made someone laugh. I comforted a friend during a hard time. I played games with children where I volunteer and saw their smiles. I said nice things and made people feel good about themselves. I offered to help someone. And through this, I found a way to make a difference that didn’t involve numbers.

So I began to do it more. I learned the more extracurriculars I do, the more I help people and the more I am able to plan things I enjoy, the better I feel about myself.

Through these activities, I learned I thrive more on smiles than I do on percentages. That a grade, no matter how high, can never compare to the feeling when someone tells you that you have made a difference in their life. For far too long, I believed I was a success if I came out on top of the class, but was failure otherwise. I started to believe, despite the protests of others, unless I was perfect, I wasn’t good enough. If my score wasn’t 100 percent, I had failed and deserved to feel bad. I deserved happiness only if I scored highly enough.

The thing is, this turned me into someone I am not. I became competitive, jealous, bitter and had to do better than others.

Not anymore.

Now, I view myself as a person. An imperfect, clumsy, dorky person who gets things wrong sometimes. And not only am I OK with that, but I kind of like it. I enjoy spreading happiness and making people feel good, even if it comes from accidentally falling over every once in a while. I enjoy showing people how amazing they are and how they can do anything they put their minds to.

I am still trying with school work, of course, but it no longer consumes me. It is no longer the biggest measure of my worth.

So when it seems like I’m slacking with school work or that I seem to be having “too much fun,” I am still, in fact, learning. The only difference is, I’m learning something that should be taught far more in school. I’m learning good or bad grades do not equal a good or bad person. I’m learning I can value myself regardless of a score on a test.

I’m learning I am me, and that is pretty great.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure.

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A Simple Way to Explain the Difference Between Stress and Anxiety

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Since I’ve started taking medication to manage my anxiety, I’ve had the pleasure of feeling — for the first time in a long time — stressed without feeling anxious.

That’s right — I was pumped to feel pure stress, untainted by thought patterns related to anxiety and depression.

Because “anxiety” and “stress” are often used interchangeably and because everyday stressors can make you feel anxiety, I wanted to explain what this difference means for me — because as someone whose anxiety has hijacked most of my “normal” stress reactions for a while now, this difference is not subtle. It’s significant.

So here, in two scenes, I want to take you into my head and hopefully explain the different between stress and anxiety.

SCENE I: Anxiety

INTERIOR OF OPEN OFFICE SPACE – MORNING

A woman sits at her desk and opens her laptop. Immediately tension creeps up her back. She feels like a balloon is being blown up in her chest. 

WOMAN’S BRAIN

I have too many emails. I have too many emails. I can’t believe I let my emails get this bad. No one else has this many emails. I’m so bad at time management. I’m so bad at my job. Everyone’s going to find out I’m not really good at this job. I’m just a fake. Everyone’s going to find out. I’m letting down everyone. I don’t deserve this job. I’m letting so many people down. I can’t believe I let it get this bad. I deserve nothing. I’m a worthless piece of shit. I should kill myself. I want to kill myself. I want to kill myself…

End scene.

SCENE II: Stress

INTERIOR OF OPEN OFFICE SPACE – MORNING

A woman sits at her desk and opens her laptop.

WOMAN’S BRAIN

I have too many emails. It’s frustrating that I have too many emails. It’s unfair I’m not responding to everyone in a timely manner. This is stressful.

Woman starts answering emails.

End scene.

To me, feeling purely stressed without interference from anxiety means experiencing tension about a task at hand — without spiraling and questioning the meaning of my existence and the value of my worth. I have to admit, it’s nice. It doesn’t fix all my problems or make stress go away, but managing my anxiety with medication has given me a little more headspace to deal with these stressors straight on, which is a welcomed change.

So next time someone explains to you that they’re feeling anxious, understand it might be more than a “typical” reaction to a stressor. In fact, anxiety doesn’t even always need a stressor at all. And while I know I can never avoid a life without stress, I’ll take a life with less anxiety.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Favor_of_God


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A group of friends holding sparklers at night. Text reads: 20 things people with anxiety are too afraid to tell their friends

20 Things People With Anxiety Are Afraid to Tell Their Friends

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There’s often no rhyme or reason as to why and how anxiety affects us — it just does. Sometimes it makes us miss out on social events. Sometimes it’s overthinking so much that texting back feels like climbing a mountain. Sometimes it’s needing reassurance, again — and again — that you’re liked, that your friendship is valued, that you’re going to be OK.

Living this way can be a tough thing to explain to your friends, so some people just don’t — figuring it’s easier to keep their mouths shut. But staying silent about your anxiety often only deepens the gap between friends, and you might be surprised what happens when you let a friend in and explain how you feel.

To start you off, we asked people in our mental health community with anxiety to share one thing they’re too scared to tell their friends.

Here’s what they shared with us:

1. “I desperately crave their help and support but am scared of seeming clingy or scare them off. I feel totally alone even though I’m functioning well and laughing.”

2. “It’s noisy inside my head all the freaking time and my thoughts spiral out of control at the tiniest slightly worrisome thing. I’m so tired of people telling me to try to think of something else or try not to worry about it. Believe me, if I had that choice we would not be having this conversation.”

3. “When I want to leave a party or don’t want to be in a group setting, I’m not doing it to avoid them. I don’t want to have an anxiety attack and ruin their good time because of it.”

4. “My anxiety makes me question everything, leaving me unable to ever actually make a decision. That is why most times I cancel last minute or just don’t show up.”

5. “I’m lonely. I’m terrified. It’s hard to ask for help. I feel worthless. Literally every decision I make in a day stresses me out. I think they only pretend to like me.”

6. “I seek approval from friends and family, but I’m so afraid my craving for reassurance will scare them away. I want them to understand that they mean the world to me and that I trust them if I go to them with my problems, but I also don’t want them to think less of me because of it. I’m afraid to tell them I’m feeling anxious every day because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m ‘faking it’ or I’m being too ‘dramatic.’ I’m always conflicted with the way I feel because I don’t want them to change their perspective on who I am, but that’s probably just my anxiety speaking.”

7. “I’m pretty open with everyone — but only when I’m online and able to hide behind the internet. In person, the most frightening thing is to say, ‘I’m having a panic attack right now.’ I hide my panic and any sign of anxiety to the best of my ability behind quietness, excuses and hiding in bathrooms. Bringing attention to the fact that right now is the very thing I talk about all the time with panic and anxiety is terrifying.”

8. “I feel alone. Totally isolated and alone. Despite their best efforts to cheer me up I always feel alone even when they’re right next to me to no fault of their own.”

9. “I’m not lazy, mean or trying to inconvenience them when I don’t want to go somewhere or I cancel plans we made. Sometime I just can’t do it.”

10. “I’m terrified to tell people that I avoid when things get tough, and it’s in that moment when I need them the most. Yet, I’m so terrified of being judged that I don’t ask for their help. It’s a terrifying, lonely cycle.”

11. “It isn’t their fault I distance myself. I am constantly paranoid around them even though I shouldn’t be. I am terrified I will say something wrong or disappoint them or how disgusting they find me or even that they hate me. I’ll come up with scenarios in my head at night that involve how they’ll tell me they hate me and how they wish they weren’t my friend.”

12. “I am terrified that no one likes me, everyone I know is lying to me and just waiting for the right moment to turn against me… I feel like at any moment I will be left all alone without anyone… I don’t know how to be a person without other people.”

13. “I already feel like a huge burden, I don’t want to add to it. And I honestly 90 percent of the time I can’t explain why I’m anxious. So I’d rather not say anything and just get through it on my own.”

14. “I’m not trying to ignore you when I don’t text you back. It’s hard for me to have conversations via text. I’m afraid my words will be misinterpreted and you’ll leave me.”

15. “No matter how long I’ve known you, how many times I’ve been to your house or how many people I’ve met with you, I will still have anxiety attacks when something changes or someone new comes around. Just let me ride the wave and be there to hold my hand, help me up or talk me down from my irrational thoughts. Please don’t leave me alone. It might be embarrassing for you, but it kills me every time and I’m sorry to be ‘that friend.’”

16.I’m afraid to tell them some of the things that trigger me.”

17. “I don’t always want to talk. I love talking to them, but sometimes I want to be alone. I feel claustrophobic if I feel like I absolutely have to do something.”

18. “No, I wasn’t at work. I couldn’t go to your event or go out for the night because I couldn’t face leaving the house. I couldn’t get over who might be there, who might not be there, who I might have to talk to… I just couldn’t. You’re still my friend and I don’t love you any less. I just couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

19. “I’m always second guessing everything I do and say around other people. That’s why I’m quiet.”

20. “No matter how many times I say I’m fine or that nothing is wrong, please, if you think something is off, don’t ignore your hunch. Ask me about it. You might even have to ask me about it multiple times. Chances are, I’m just afraid that you don’t care or that I’m wasting your time.”



20 Things People With Anxiety Are Afraid to Tell Their Friends
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