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?
Jennifer LaRue Huget
October 19, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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