Does The Thought Of Being Sick Make You Sick? You Might Have 'Emetophobia'

Psychological research shows that 'emetophobia' can be a debilitating fear if not identified and treated.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 21, 2024

Phobias are like icebergs; what we see on the surface is only a fraction of the fears that lurk beneath. At the tip of the ice sits the stereotypical phobias that society readily acknowledges. Many of us grapple with these common fears, such as the fears of heights, spiders or needles. However, at the bottom of the iceberg lies a lesser-known yet profoundly debilitating phobia: "emetophobia," the fear of nausea and vomiting.

This submerged fear can go beyond the realm of what most understand typical phobias to consist of, impacting lives in unimaginable ways. For those touched by its influence, the very idea of nausea becomes nauseating. If you frequently grapple with anxieties related to sickness, you might be dealing with emetophobia—a rare fear that is now measurable by psychologists.

What Is Emetophobia?

Research from the Journal of Anxiety Disorders indicates that emetophobia revolves around three central themes: the fear of oneself vomiting, the fear of witnessing others vomit and the fear of vomiting in the presence of others. Individuals grappling with emetophobia may go to great lengths to avoid any stimuli even remotely related to the idea of nausea. This fear is all-encompassing, overshadowing their daily lives with a constant dread of potential sickness.

The debilitating nature of emetophobia cannot be overstated. For those afflicted, every day can become a battleground against the countless potential triggers for nausea or vomiting.

The impact is not only psychological, but has tangible, real-world consequences. Emetophobes may construct detailed and intricate routines and rituals, spending significant portions of their day devising strategies to evade any situation associated with sickness. The fear may infiltrate their work, relationships and leisure activities, forcing them to abstain from seemingly ordinary experiences that most get to enjoy without worry.

Emetophobia's grip is so strong that it can lead sufferers to take extreme measures to protect themselves from the slight possibility of becoming nauseous. Activities that most take for granted—such as enjoying a drink with friends or trying new foods—become monumental challenges for emetophobes.

The fear extends to even potential situations where they or others might become sick, leading them to avoid certain mundanities, simple joys or rites of passage—such as public transportation, theme parks or even pregnancy—to escape the possibility of sickness.

Those with emetophobia may find themselves meticulously planning escape routes and emergency strategies in case of illness. They may severely restrict themselves to only sitting, standing or sleeping in certain areas with the most fast and direct access to a bathroom. They may invest heavily in nausea medication, and experience extreme stress when without it or upon running out.

The impact that the many countermeasures emetophobes may take to avoid sickness can have on their work, relationships and quality of life is undeniable. The constant state of vigilance and avoidance not only impedes their ability to engage in normal daily activities, but can also result in significant strain on their mental health.

How To Identify Emetophobia

Emetophobia is incredibly rare, affecting only 0.1% of the global population, with a higher prevalence among women. According to further research from the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, the rarity of emetophobia has contributed to a lack of knowledge and diagnostic tools.

In light of this, the authors devised the Emetophobia Questionnaire by means of robust research and experimentation. To use the scale, individuals rate their level of agreement—on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree—to each of the following 13 statements:

  1. I avoid air travel because I may become nauseous/vomit.
  2. I avoid other forms of transport because I may become nauseous/vomit.
  3. I avoid sea travel (boats, etc.) because I may become nauseous/vomit.
  4. I avoid places where there are no facilities to cater if I become nauseous/vomit.
  5. I avoid places where there is no medical attention, because I may become nauseous/vomit.
  6. I avoid fast-moving activities like rides at the theme park, because I may vomit.
  7. If I see vomit, I may become sick myself.
  8. If I smell vomit, I may become sick myself.
  9. Exposure to vomit can cause sickness and/or illness.
  10. I avoid adults who may be likely to vomit.
  11. I avoid children who may be likely to vomit.
  12. I avoid places where others may vomit.
  13. I notice physical anxiety symptoms when exposed to vomit.

To any person, nausea and vomiting is naturally unpleasant to witness or experience. Because of this, it can be difficult to draw the line between emetophobia and simply being naturally disgusted by sickness—leading emetophobes to live fearfully in silence without realizing they may need help. This highlights the benefits instruments like the Emetophobia Questionnaire can have.

Recognizing the detrimental impact of emetophobia on both the physical and mental aspects of an individual's life emphasizes the crucial need for psychological intervention. Emetophobes, often trapped in a cycle of fear, may benefit significantly from professional help to break free from the chains that bind them–allowing them to regain control and experience life without the constant weight of anxiety and avoidance.

Want to know how you rate on the Emetophobia Questionnaire? Take the assessment here.

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