Emetophobia is the fear of vomiting, others vomiting, or the effects of vomiting. It is from the greek word “emesis” meaning vomit and “phobos” meaning fear. The reason we call it hidden is because it is so little known. Virtually everyone has heard of phobias in children like fear of needles or snakes. However, people are often surprised this is a phobia. The reason we call it an epidemic is because it is far more widespread and debilitating than one would expect.
Like any phobia the fear, when triggered, can be overwhelming. When something triggers a fear response, one thing the body does is shift its resources to parts of the body needed for defense. The digestive system is not needed for defense so that shift can result in stomach discomfort. So unlike many phobias, a child’s body becomes a trigger for the fear. The fear and attempted solution results in actions or symptoms such as these:
- Avoiding contact with anything associated with vomit or things that could lead to vomiting
- Avoiding words, images or sounds associated with vomiting
- Asking over and over for reassurance of not being sick
- Restricting kind or amount of food to prevent throwing up
- Monitoring feelings in throat, esophagus and stomach for signs of nausea
- Avoiding activities that could lead to dizziness or overheating
- Increasing anxiety at any sign of stomach distress
It can be hard to diagnose in children because even though you can tell your child is anxious, when you ask your child about it, he or she may not disclose key details. This is because they don’t want to talk and/or don’t want you to talk about it for fear that will lead to being nauseated.
Like any anxiety problem it can range from a mild problem to major impairment. I suspect (opinion only) that if you included mild to moderate problems along with the most distressing cases, sufferers would be in the tens of millions. This is a frequently misdiagnosed problem as well. I know of a few cases that were mistakenly diagnosed as eating disorders. Sometimes it is thought it is a panic disorder.
Recently 20/20 did, in my opinion, a long overdue segment on this debilitating disorder. Here is the link. An expert in the field, Anna Christie, shared the results of a survey of the literature with me and she found only 30 published articles that focused primarily on this. There may be more but the point is that is microscopic compared to research on other anxiety disorders.
Because it is so common and debilitating, we decided to do a supplement to the Turnaround program that addresses this problem. Building on the step-by-step process we lay out in the program, we lay out specifics to help your child overcome this. We hope to release it in May 2016. Here is an excellent blog post on what treatment is like from a mom’s point of view.
Recent update: Dr. Russ has written an interactive children’s book on emetophobia. It is for use on Apple devices. It is only offered for sale through Apple Books. Check it out!