Connectivity through understanding: Emetophobia and relationships

Trigger Warning: Discussions of vomiting and anxiety. 

Note: the purpose of this piece is to bring awareness to Emetophobia and the effects it has on making connections and forming relationships. It is from my experience, and I do not aim to speak for everybody. 

Emetophobia is a debilitating phobia of vomiting which affects my everyday life and leaves me completely panicked whenever I feel sick. My experience with Emetophobia has not been easy; even the thought of sickness sends shivers down my spine. No one likes being sick, but for me, this fear is next level. Emetophobia isn’t easy to deal with, and it is certainly not easy to explain. It can put massive strain on relationships and friendships because, naturally, it isn’t easy to empathise with a phobia you haven’t personally experienced.

Emetophobia is very common, with one in twenty callers to Anxiety UK showing symptoms. These symptoms include (but are not limited to): avoiding new places to eat, compulsively checking food expiry dates and instructions, and an intense fear of germs. Many emetophobes also fear food; chicken is something I often refuse to eat as it can cause food poisoning. The anxiety I feel when nauseous or sick is unparalleled. The feeling of losing control over my body is one that I dread and will avoid at all costs. It may sound ridiculous to some (trust me, I know), but it is very real.

My Emetophobia began to really affect me when I was in year 10 of secondary school. Some of my friends didn’t understand why I was so anxious all the time or why I had to miss out on meeting up. Whenever they went to restaurants, or somewhere that I could not escape from within five seconds, I would panic and drop out at the last minute, even though I really wanted to go. Sometimes, their compassion would fall short, and I would hear things like, ‘my other friends have anxiety and they still come out, why can’t you?’ I began hiding how I really felt because it seemed pointless to open up. I labelled my Emetophobia as general anxiety because I was ashamed to admit I had it. Little did I know how much this would all affect me.  

I never really felt understood until I moved to university. My flatmates understood and never used my Emetophobia against me. They accepted me and my emetophobia. We talked, drank, and stayed up into the early hours of the morning; I couldn’t have felt safer or more accepted.

Not every relationship is strained because of Emetophobia. In fact, in my experience, many are stronger because of it. In order for somebody else to connect with you and your fears, it’s always a good idea to verbalise how you’re feeling, despite the fear that comes along with doing that. Telling people about my emetophobia has not been easy, but it’s absolutely been worth it. Friends have been able to help enforce my coping techniques when I start to panic. They tell me to breathe, name objects in the room, and if I have to sit in the bathroom, they leave it free for as long as I need. Without this support, my head would plunge straight into the worse-case scenario. My friends are the ones who are usually right there to pull me back to reality. Dealing with anything alone is never the best option, even if, like me, you have previously had negative experiences when opening up. 

Ultimately, talking to your close friends and family members helps them connect with you and gives them an opportunity to understand. Even though not everybody will get it, the ones that do will make you feel safe and understood. If you struggle with Emetophobia, then please reach out for help and tell somebody. And remember, you are so much more than your fear.