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Emetophobes, avert your eyes

If you are an emetophobe, you've probably been trying hard to avoid watching (or even listening to) the footage of young Falcon Heene, the boy who didn't get in that helium balloon, tossing his cookies during his family's interview on Good Morning America.

Even for those of us who don't have an irrational fear of vomiting or of witnessing others as they lose their lunch, the scene's pretty wrenching and may make us feel like hurling. But for an emetophobe (emesis = vomiting, phobe = fear), just the thought of watching a kid or anyone else vomit is terrifying to the core.

Though it's thought to be among the more common phobias, emetophobia's been little studied, so we don't know much about what causes it or how to fix it. One study showed that it tends to take hold early-- around age 9 --and to last a long time (a mean duration of 22 years). Emetophobes-- or, as some apparently call themselves, emets-- may avoid going out much for fear they'll puke in public or see someone else do so. They may become picky eaters, avoiding anything they think might make them sick. And, according to D.C. psychotherapist Jerilyn Ross, who has treated a number of people with fear of vomiting, some women even put off getting pregnant because they so dread the idea of morning sickness-- and worry that they might not be able to care for their children if such care involved overseeing upchucking.

Ross says that while none of us particularly relishes vomiting or seeing others do so, that distaste is rational. But when the fear of vomiting is so severe it makes a person rearrange his activities-- even if he's never had a bad experience involving vomit, as Ross says is usually the case-- it crosses the line to become a phobia. She says that as with many phobias, emetophobia is more a fear of the fear of vomiting than of the act itself.

Ross predicts that many emetophobic people will read this blog and feel relief at learning they're not alone. She wants them to know that not only are they not alone, but their phobia can be treated; common approaches include exposure therapy, in which patients are gradually, gently desensitized to the object of their fear. They may, for instance, work their way up from being able to be in the same room with a joke-shop rubber vomit clump to watching a movie in which someone vomits. Some patients may also need anti-anxiety medications.

People with an extreme fear of vomiting "shouldn't have to live secretly and privately," Ross says. Why not start here? Do you worry irrationally about getting sick or seeing someone else get sick? How does that affect your life?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  October 19, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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I guess it's nice to know I'm not alone? Do we all have to use euphemisms? (I most often stick with "upper GI upset" to describe what I can't say). I know it's completely irrational, but knowing doesn't stop the rapid heart rate or the clammy feeling I get when I have reason to think about such things.

It's hard to explain the difference between something that nobody thinks is pleasant and a full-blown phobia, especially when I can't really use the words I might need to use to make any sort of sense. Yes, reading this article (I had to skim over certain sections) and writing this reply has made me feel panicky.

I have developed a plethora of behaviors to try and keep myself out of the danger zone, so to speak. For example, it takes an extreme emergency to get me to go into the bathroom at a bar or nightclub, for fear of what I might find in there. If it's not the very beginning of the night, I will pretty much always choose to go home instead of risking it. It's also one of the reasons I'll excuse myself from groups of people who are getting drunk...too risky.

I don't think I could raise children - I'd be useless if they needed my help.

Posted by: sb10 | October 19, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I don't have a phobia about getting sick but do have a major hand-sweating, heart-pounding phobia about crossing the Cheasapeake Bay bridge. The eastbound lane doesn't bother me; it's the westbound lane that goes up into the air and curves. Scares me to death! I'm gripping the wheel and gulping deep breaths to fight it off, then somebody speeds up behind me and I can just see myself driving over the edge into the water. I avoid it at all costs but a relative has moved to Delaware and I have to cross that bridge to get there.

Also, I have a terrible dislike for using public bathrooms. I'll wait until I get home (if I can) rather than use a public bathroom. Most are just too nasty to think about.

sb10: sounds like you have anxiety problems. Antidepressants might help; talk to your medical doctor.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | October 19, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Hi, Baltimore11:

I wrote about bridge-crossing phobia a few years ago: Here's the story, if you're interested:

How Did the Gephyrophobe Cross the Bridge? With Ken Medell's Help.


Posted by: Jennifer LaRue Huget | October 19, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, that pretty much describes me starting around age 8 or 9 and continuing on into adulthood. I used to take the most extreme measures to avoid vomiting--sleeping on the basement floor whenever a sibling was sick, eating only the most bland foods for years (and what's more, I was successful at avoiding vomiting!). Oddly, what cured me was having a baby. I told my husband before our child was born that I'd be happy to change any number of diapers, but if the baby was throwing up, it was up to him to deal with it. Turns out I had a baby with reflux who spent the first seven months of her life vomiting many, many times daily. Between the fog of parenthood and the hormones of motherhood, I learned to deal. I guess that was real-life exposure therapy!

Posted by: Sarahfran | October 19, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I don't have any phobias but for those Emetophobes out there, here's a story for you.

I was in Special Forces during my military stint, 1965-'68. Often when we made a parachute jump we'd get reserve pilots who needed to fly a certain amount of hours to stay flight qualified. One time, in order for the pilot to get extra hours of flight time we loaded up on a C-130 at Pope AFB in North Carolina and flew to Eglin AFB in Florida. When we landed we were given a box lunch of cold, half raw, bloody rubbery chicken, a bruised apple, a candy bar and a 1/2 pint of warm milk.

Before loading up for the contour flight home to Ft Bragg, North Carolina, we put on our parachutes, both main and reserve and snapped our fully loaded rucksack to the parachute harness. All told we had on about 150 pounds. A C-130 holds 60 paratroopers in four lines or sticks. Two outboard sticks that look toward the center of the plane and two inboard sticks that look towards to outside of the plane. So basically there are 30 people looking at each other on both sides of the plane. With all the equipment there is NO room to move around even if there were somewhere to go. This contour flight was going to follow the lay of the land at 300 feet. Although it isn't exactly the Rocky Mountains, it is like riding in an elevator for four hours or so. To make matters worse, the air conditioner on this plane was broken and it was summer so you can imagine how hot it got in that plane, loaded down in equipment.

After a few hours of flying contour I could see some of the guys facing me starting to sweat and look like they were going to heave. Then it happened. One guy started puking and nearly everybody else followed. We were all covered in puke from our knees down, there was no escaping the carnage. We had at least another hour before we got to the drop zones and we could jump from the plane. When the time came and the door opened, we gratefully slid out of the plane into the sky and rode our parachutes down to earth. I heard the Air Force guys were really PO'd because they had to clean up the mess.

Posted by: rcubedkc | October 19, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

For those of you who have phobias about vomiting, bridges, bathrooms, or anything else, check out the website for the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA):
There's lots of good information about phobias and other anxiety and related disorders, including treatments.

Posted by: Jeannie8 | October 20, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

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