My Daughter's Struggle With Emetophobia (Fear of Throwing Up)
Cami was paralyzed. She sat glued to the car seat and her eyes were full of terror. “Mom, no please, Mom, please don’t make me go.” I was heartbroken, but I had no choice. I pried her little hands off me, lifted her book bag onto her shoulders and forced her out the car door into a line of oncoming students. What was terrifying my child so bad that she dreaded going to school each day?
The answer was relatively simple – BARF!
What Is Emetophobia?
Emetophobia, the fear of vomit, is a strange but relatively common phobia and, according to the International Emetophobia Society, is the fifth most common fear in the world. Derived from the Greek word "emetos" (vomiting) and "phobos" (fear). Vomit phobics suffer intense and persistent anxiety and often avoid meetings, public places and other areas of potential embarrassment should they vomit in public.
I watched my little girl avoid any person that she feared might be contaminated or sick for fear she would catch a potential “bug” greatly increasing her risk of vomiting.
According to Behavioral Therapist, David Veal, the key criteria for this specific phobia of vomiting are:
(a) Marked and persistent fear of vomiting that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence of vomit or anticipation of vomiting.
(b) Exposure to cues related to vomiting almost invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally pre-disposed panic attack.
(c) The person recognizes that the fear of vomiting is excessive or unreasonable.
(d) Phobic situations related to vomiting are avoided or else endured with intense anxiety or distress.
(e) The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia. (Veale, 2009)
The disorder can be paralyzing. We spent years making trips to therapists, doctors and hospitals in our attempts to find someone to help us treat this under-researched disorder. A variety of drugs were prescribed from Ritalin to Prevacid. Multiple treatments were attempted such as rewards-based therapies, art therapy, talk therapy, relaxation therapy and therapies to distract the mind.
In the meantime, Cami’s attendance and her grades suffered. Her phobia started in first grade and pretty much lasted almost entirely off and on her whole 12 years. She avoided restaurants, parties and staying the night with friends. Emetophobia basically stole her childhood. Our efforts seemed fruitless and I attempted to reassure her over and over again that she would be "okay.” It was exhausting for both of us.
It was in this exacerbation that I took her to a therapist who specialized in anxiety disorders and especially the obsessive kind of ailment that Cami was suffering. She recognized that a lot of the therapy that Cami had received up to this point was ineffective in nature. One of the first things she told me was that I could no longer reassure my daughter. This went against every grain in my body, but the reassurance she said was not helping Cami face her fear and get well. We needed to retrain her brain, so to speak, and to do so meant we needed to expose her to what she feared the most – PUKE!
"Exposure therapy is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy technique (CBT) that is often used in the treatment of … phobias.
In phobias, …the therapy technique gradually exposes patients to what frightens them and helps them cope with their fears.
… exposure therapy is typically conducted within a psychotherapeutic relationship with a therapist trained and experienced with the technique and the related coping exercises. (Grohol, 2009)
Lee Baer has written a brilliant book on obsessive bad thoughts called, “The Imp of the Mind”, In Imp, Lee says, “…we have yet to find a treatment that works as well and as rapidly as directly confronting or ‘exposing’ yourself to the very thing that you fear.” Baer calls this “habituation...after long familiarity with a situation that at first produces a strong emotional reaction, our bodies learn to get used to or ignore that situation.” (Baer, 2001)
To expose Cami to her phobia, I was given a recipe for fake vomit that contained, limburger cheese, chili and beef barley soup among other things and after sitting in my car trunk for three days, it certainly smelled like the real deal. At Cami’s next therapy appointment, the container was opened and she was encouraged to smell and touch the concoction exposing her to her worst nightmare.
The session went well and as we exited the parking lot, the therapist instructed us to deposit the rancid concoction in a nearby dumpster.
A Promising Future
There is no simple fix to such a long-term disorder and things were not better overnight, but this was the first time we had hope that Cami could go forward and lead a normal, healthy life. She graduated high school and dog grooming school and if you know anything about grooming dogs, it can be a pretty messy experience with drool and anal glands. But she is pursuing what she is passionate about - animals - and by getting the help she needed through exposure therapy, she is doing it without being held hostage to fear.
In fall of 2013, Cameo entered college to start her education in criminal justice.
She co-wrote the following research hub on emetophobia:
Baer, Lee. The Imp of the Mind: Exposing the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts. New York: Plume, 2001. Print.
Grohol, J. (2009). What is Exposure Therapy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2012, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2009/what-is-exposure-therapy/
Veale, David (2009). Cognitive behavior therapy for a specific phobia of vomiting. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 2, pp 272288
- International Emetophobia Society | The Web's Largest Meeting Place for People With Emetophobia
International Emetphobia Society | The Web's Largest Home for Those With Emetophobia