Anxiety Girl: Life with the World's Worst Superpower

Emetophobia: The Fear Of Throwing Up

Last week, I found myself confronting my biggest fear: vomiting. For years, I have done everything in my power to avoid throwing up, but sometimes washing my hands and chewing Tums doesn’t work. My job at a daycare leaves me very susceptible to stomach bugs, and last week I was struck down by one.

Many people don’t realize that Emetophobia is a thing. I didn’t even know there was a name for my years-long fear until I looked it up to write this article. In fact, I never knew other people shared my fear until my mom read aloud a sentence from an article she was reading. As she put it, the subject of the article was even more neurotic than me. She read me his long list of fears, and right after she read “fear of throwing up,” I stopped her and told her I had that. It was the first time I ever admitted to having this fear.

In the back of my head, I always knew I had a huge fear of throwing up, but I didn’t admit it until I realized that there were other people like me. I thought I was absolutely insane to fear vomiting as much as I did, but I’m not! While most people are disgusted by, or greatly dislike, throwing up, some of us harbor an actual fear of it that some psychologists classify as an anxiety disorder. Women tend to have Emetophobia more often than men, but it can affect anyone.

Emetophobia (which can also mean the fear of vomit) is often the result of a childhood trauma, so I tried to figure out if that was the case for me. Like countless other kids, I once threw up at school. I was in third grade and getting ready to leave the school library (is no where sacred?) when my stomach turned on me, and it was definitely one of my most embarrassing moments. Even though my classmates assured me that no one saw what happened, I was scarred. I remember the exact outfit I was wearing that day. It was pajama day, and I wore my favorite satin pajama bottoms with a Limited Too hoodie. After that day, both of those were pushed to the back of my dresser, never to be worn again. I thought that outfit was the reason I got sick, and if I wore it, surely I’d be sick again.

I knew it was ridiculous to think clothing was the reason I threw up, but I couldn’t risk it. A few months later, I had a dream that I was sick in the nurses office. In that dream, I was wearing a blue sweater and my favorite glitter jeans, and the next morning I decided my dream was predicting the future. To stop that incident from happening, I never wore a blue sweater with my glitter jeans.

My habits to prevent vomiting went further than my attire. The morning I threw up at school, I was watching an episode of The Wild Thornberrys that involved polar bears. I never watched that episode again. If it came on, I changed the channel. I did the same thing with an episode of As Told By Ginger the next time I caught the stomach bug. I took note of everything I did before I threw up, and I made sure to never repeat those actions.

Avoiding certain outfits or television episodes makes Emetophobia seem simpler than it is. For many, myself included, Emetophobia makes it nearly impossible to socialize when a stomach bug is making the rounds because we fear everyone we talk to has the bug and will either get us sick or throw up in front of us. Everyone handles their fear differently. In some cases, people with Emetophobia will develop anorexia because they become afraid of food. A lot of people with Emetophobia probably haven’t even read this far because I used the word “vomit” and its variations too many times.

There hasn’t been much research done on Emetophobia, and most of what we know about it comes from people sharing their experiences. For me, the fear of throwing up is more than just a fear of reliving an embarrassing moment from my childhood. Many of my anxieties come from my fear of losing control, and I feel like throwing up is the ultimate loss of control. One thing I know I can control is what I eat. Knowing that my digestive system can turn on me and expel what I chose to eat from my body is terrifying.

Last week, I had the stomach bug. It sucked and I hated every moment of it, but it only lasted a day. During that day, I kept reminding myself that it would eventually pass. Eventually I would feel better. Everyone eases their Emetophobia in different ways. Some people go through exposure therapy (which will not involve making yourself throw up!) or hypnosis. I’m trying to get past it by understanding it. I’m realizing that a lot of my behaviors come from that fear, such as avoiding boats and my need to carry around security items.

I’m not going to stop wearing my polka dot pajamas just because I got sick last time I wore them. I won’t blame Clueless for being on my television screen when I had to bolt to the bathroom, and I won’t blame BJ Novak just because I went to his book signing the night before. I threw up because I work around children and caught a virus from them. I could quit my job to reduce my chances of catching stomach bugs, but I would never do that. I can’t let Emetophobia control my life, and the more I understand it, the easier it is to move past my fear.

Featured Image Via Shutterstock

  • Laura Donovan

    I hate vomiting! Half the reason I don’t drink anymore. It really is the worst. Did you read that Atlantic article on anxiety? That writer has a fear of throwing up and is so consumed by it, he was able to fight the nausea medication, which doctors gave him to help him overcome this phobia. Crazy how the mind can control your body like that.

    • Chelsey Falco

      This fear is part of the reason I won’t drink to the point of drunkenness! So I guess this fear is good for you when it comes to alcohol consumption. But I think that article is the one my mom was reading that made me admit I had emetophobia. The mind is a powerful thing!

  • Becki Peckham

    I have this too! I don’t recall being traumatized, but I hadn’t gotten sick in over 18 years and when I did… well, lets just say there was a lot of panic, crying and freaking out going on. I pop tums like they are going out of style, get anxiety when someone around me is just feeling stomach sick (then instantly I feel sick) and always carry Gravol/Pepto Bismol in my bag. I am so glad I am not the only one. :)

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Becki! It’s so comforting to know other people eat Tums like candy and carry around Pepto Bismol. I always felt crazy for doing that, but I guess it’s not as weird as I thought!

  • Alejandra Pane

    I really vomited for the last time when I was 10 years old. That’s more than 20 years ago!!! As the time went by I became more and more afraid of vomiting. One day last year I vomited a little bit on the shower while I was brushing my teeth (yes, I brush my teeth in the shower) and it was such a drama for me, like the end of the world. I don’t know what I’m going to do the day I get pregnant.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Alejandra! The longest I went without vomiting was 7 years, and it definitely got increasingly scarier as time went by. So when it did happen, it was a HUGE deal for me, too! Also, I’ve talked to other people who brush their teeth in the shower, so no judgement. It seems like a great time-saver!

  • Nichole Marie Chiazza

    I’ve discovered that the traumatic experience that triggered my emetophobia was when I was at a woman’s house who was babysitting us. I remember getting ready to go outside to play and for some reason, I became ill and ending up vomiting Spaghetti-O’s all over her very bright white carpet. She was furious and SCREAMED at me. Mind you, I was not related to this woman and I don’t even think she was a close family friend. I was so ashamed and terrified that I’ve had this fear since.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Nichole! I can totally understand why that would lead to a fear of vomiting! That sounds awful. Thanks for sharing!

  • Sandra Henningsson

    This is exactly me. I have Emetophobia x 10. I am so afraid of throwing up that I don’t know what to do. Just the other day I was at the hospital and I almost started to panick because there were so many kids around me and kids, like we all know, easily gets sick. So I sat there and thought “I’m gonna get sick. I’m gonna get sick.” I couldn’t think about anything else than that. It sucks!

    Last time I had the stomach flu I watched Friends on tv, and I still can’t watch it because I think I will get sick if I do. The same thing with egg sandwiches. I can’t eat them because I think I will throw up if I do. And I can’t sit in one of the sofas at home because I think I will throw up if I do. And I can’t wear those clothes I did when I last got the stomach flu. I am so afraid of throwig up that I am afraid to go outside the the door when the stomach flu is around. That is not normal!

    It’s so sick how our minds can control us like this. And Emetophobia sucks. That’s all I have to say. .

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Sandra! Our minds can be so controlling! My school once sent out an email to warn us that the stomach bug was going around, and I was so afraid to go to class or leave my room. Thanks for sharing, and good luck working through your, Emetophobia!

  • Mindy Hiteshue

    Loved this article. I have the exact same fear–directly linked with my anxiety disorder. I, too, will go to extreme lengths to avoid throwing up and I, too, vividly remember the smallest details about every time I ever was sick. Having chronic stomach issues doesn’t help, either, since I’m always very focused on my stomach. My therapist also said that this fear for me is most likely related to a fear of losing control, as you pointed out. The worst part is, as a logical person I of course realize that being anxious about it doesn’t help (wringing hands, pacing, high heart rate, ruminating, constantly seeking assurance and impossible guarantees from others, etc.). Those things only makes it worse. But trying to get myself to calm down on my own doesn’t work either! I have tried some exposure therapy over the years (involving journaling worst-case scenarios) and that has helped. The last time I was sick I was basically trapped in a house with my brother’s family with everyone falling like dominos to the norovirus. I took a small amount of anxiety medication that night just in case, and it, along with the exposure therapy, proved very helpful in curbing the terror as I did end up with the bug. The good news is I didn’t completely flip out, which is a start! I do have some kind of funny vomit stories and if I retell those, after a while the anxiety subsides and I can see SOME humor in them. Best of luck to you in your efforts to tell the act of puking to go straight to hell. :)

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Mindy! Trying to find the humor in vomiting incidences definitely helps me, too. (And of course anxiety medicine helps!) Writing down worst-case scenarios seems like a good trick, and I might have to try that next time I worry about getting sick!

  • Rachel Wagner

    I have this EXACT same thing. When I was little I would never look at certain clothes again, and I still can’t look at peppermint bark even it’s in a advertisement. I also thought that dreams were predicitng the future. I had to go through therapy for a year because I was having panic attacks getting in the way of my life when I was in high school. I am even still on an anti-anxiety medication, all because I am SO terrified of throwing up. I have never talked to anyone who has had this same thing. It is comforting to know that there are people who go have experienced the same thing, and that we’re not crazy. Thank you so much for posting this!!

  • Rachel Wagner

    I have this EXACT same thing. When I was little I would never look at certain clothes again, and I still can’t look at peppermint bark even it’s in a advertisement. I also thought that dreams were predicitng the future. I had to go through therapy for a year because I was having panic attacks getting in the way of my life. I am even still on an anti-anxiety medication, all because I am SO terrified of throwing up. I have never talked to anyone who has had this same thing. It is comforting to know that there are people who go have experienced the same thing, and that we’re not crazy. Thank you so much for posting this!!

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Rachel! It has been so comforting to read everyone’s comments. I wasn’t sure how many people could relate when I wrote this, but it seems like there are a lot of us! And we all seem to have similar experiences. Good luck working through this fear!

  • Jamie Whitwood

    My problem isn’t with what I’m wearing or anything like that, I just hate that feeling of regurgitated food coming back up. Whenever I hear there is a bug going around at work I’m like please please no. I always pray that if I get it, I’d rather be sitting on the toilet then leaning into it. Seems to work. The last time I threw up I was doing something I shouldn’t have done and it wasn’t that bad. I only had a little bit of food in my stomach but the dry heaves are the worst! Now I did get thrown up on, well my hair did but it wasn’t like the smelly vomit that I know can be brought forth from our bodies. No a friend of mine was having a bad bad time and was getting drunk at the bus stop and I thought I wasn’t sitting in front of him, well I was wrong. I didn’t want to get him in trouble so I walked around with stale beer and tons of perfume to hide the smell. But I know when I hear the song I was listening to that morning I never act the same when hearing it. Now the fear isn’t like an OMG NO! it’s more on like I hate being around it. I see friends with kids post on facebook that their kids are crapping the bed and puking on the carpet. I want kids but I’m scared of puke itself I guess.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Jamie! I’m always amazed at how other people can deal with kids puking because I hate it so much. You’re a much braver person than I am for being able to handle someone puking in your hair. That would torture me! I’m so impressed that you could deal with that!

  • Heather Sundell

    YES. Thank you so much, It was like reading my own thoughts. You are not alone!

    • Chelsey Falco

      And you are not alone either, Heather! Thank you for reading!

  • Chelsea Turner Avery

    glad to hear i’m not alone! my friends and family totally make fun of me but it is a deep, scary and very real thing! i used to have super intense travel anxiety but not because i was afraid the might crash…i was afraid i’d sit next to someone who would get airsick and vomit. exposure helped some when my husband and i were on a 6th month tour around North American and we did a ton of traveling but just thinking about it makes me feel sick.

    ps. i will also never ever wear the red and black turtleneck that i got sick in when i was 10. it may in fact still be hidden in my dad’s basement back home.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Chelsea! I have the same fear about planes. I never want to get sick on one or be next to someone who gets sick! It’s easy for people to make fun of since most of us hate vomiting, but some of us really are scared.

  • Ashley Rampal

    I don’t know if I really have this or not because I wasn’t traumatized by anything I can recall and I don’t ritualize anything about how, when, or why. I do know right away if I’m going to be sick (my body tells me about an hour or so in advance) and I probably cry about having to do it for far longer than the process actually takes. I chew Pepto like crazy though, because it really does work for me most times, even once I think I’m at the point of no return. But ugh, I cry like a baby when I know it’s really gonna happen this time. I sob and say, “I don’t want to throw up,” while my husband just looks concerned because he knows there’s no way to help. It’s awful.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Ashley! It sounds like you might have Emetophobia, too. It doesn’t have to stem from something super traumatizing. The act of throwing up can be trauma enough!

      • Ashley Rampal

        That’s so true!

  • Nancy McLaughlin

    Well, that sounds just like me!

    What’s funny about this is that I’m not afraid of vomit; I have cleaned my kids puddle many times. But I can count on one hand the times that I threw up in my life (and I’m 30). I fight the urge to vomit so much, that I usually pass out from the sick feeling. I become this crazy person and throw myself on the floor (because it’s colder) and just scream like I’m dying. Once I couldn’t take it anymore and tried to get some relief by putting my fingers down my throat and nothing happened. And I really tried. It kind of eased my fear though.

    Just like the others, I immediately start feeling sick when someone close to me has a stomach bug. I carry a bottle of hand sanitizer with me at all times. Even writing this comment makes me feel funny! But like you, it doesn’t run my life. I still drink alcohol or eat like a normal person. But I would rather get diarrhea for 10 days than throw up once, that’s for sure!

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Nancy! I’ve had moments where I screamed like I was dying, too, just to fight throwing up. It’s the worst! I was telling my grandma that I’d rather have the regular flu for a week than a stomach bug for a day. (If I had the flu, I might be saying differently, but for now, that’s my truth!) Thanks for sharing!

  • Katie Sweet

    Love this…. I’ve definitely felt the same way and never realized so many other people did too. I can still remember the date I had the stomach flu in 7th grade and it took me the longest time to eat the food that I ate that day again. I could never wear those clothes again, and I never watched Cadet Kelly on Disney Channel again either. I would panic and be convinced I was going to get sick even if it was just a friends’ sibling that was sick, someone I had no contact with. I can’t remember ever having a traumatic experience throwing up, but I’ve struggled with anxiety in other areas of my life, so this could be part of it. Luckily, like you I’ve been able to learn ways to ease some of my anxiety about it.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading, Katie! I didn’t realize how many other people could relate, either! It’s comforting that there are so many of us. This fear definitely seems to go along with other anxiety issues. It’s crazy how everything is connected! And don’t worry, I’ve seen Cadet Kelly enough times for the both of us!

  • Kayla Keplinger

    Thank you for sharing this!! Its always so refreshing to be reminded I’m not the only one. So for anyone who cares, here are my personal issues with it. I’ve been struggling with this since I was very young, but its an overall fear of vomit, whether its my own or someone else’s. I used to go to such extreme lengths to avoid getting sick just like how you described, avoiding certain clothes or TV shows (one of those also being an episode of As Told By Ginger!). I would avoid places where people got sick. It would take at least a week for me to use a bathroom again after either myself or someone else had gotten sick in it. However, I didn’t understand it as a kid and got sick constantly because if I thought about it I would freak out and focus on it until I threw up. My family took me to doctors and treated me for tummy troubles but no one knew until years later that it was all in my head. I occasionally have anxiety attacks where I’m crying and shaking all over sitting on the bathroom floor because I thought “what if I got sick right now?” If someone gets sick, or I think they’re going to, my heart starts pounding, I start crying, and doing literally whatever I can do to get out of there and far away. I’ve damaged my ears from plugging them so hard with my fingers to prevent hearing people throwing up at night. I’m afraid of long car rides, airplane rides, public bathrooms, gatherings with children, parties…. all because of vomit. Its such an inconvenient fear. Though in the last year I’ve made major improvements through self therapy! Its not easy but its something you can learn to live with. I’m not sure I’ll ever be over it though.

    • Chelsey Falco

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Kayla! Was it the episode of As Told By Ginger where they sing in the talent show? If so, I think we have enough evidence that it’s actually linked to stomach bugs :). I’ve also avoided certain bathrooms for weeks if I knew someone got sick in them, and I’ll plug my ears so hard if I hear someone vomiting, too. Good luck working through your issues with Emetophobia!

  • Aubrie Rentería

    You have no idea how glad I am that this article showed up on this site!!! I keep having to explain to people what emetophobia is and they just don’t understand that it isn’t a gross-out factor for me, it’s a legitimate fear. In fact just yesterday one of my friends was about to tell a vomit story and I’m just yelling at him to stop, but he doesn’t so I bolt out of there and my other friends had to explain to him that I have a fear of vomit! It’s a daily fear, too. I have nightmares about it, I don’t want to be around children because of it, I avoid amusement parks and eating competitions because of it, I even wait to watch movies until someone can tell me if there is or isn’t a vomit scene in it!

  • Kasi Brown

    Understanding is half the battle. I used to be unable to look at blood and guts and now I’m a medic. I just decided that people were like cars and the blood is the oil. Another way to overcome phobias is to find the humor in them. Here’s a whole series on bizarre yet true human phobias.

  • Sarah Hunt

    I have never met anyone with emetophobia. No-one understands when I say I can’t deal with it. They just say “well no-one likes it”. But it’s so much more than that. I’m absolutely terrified of it. I had a stomach bug not long ago and I was trying so hard not to that I was lying on the floor praying to whatever deity that it wouldn’t happen and trying not to cry or have a panic attack.

    I have an eating disorder and I think the only reason I haven’t been bulimic in the vomiting sense is because of the emetophobia. So it has the occasional advantage I guess!

    I’m so glad I’m not alone, but at the same time I wish I was. I know how difficult it is to deal with and I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to have to deal with it, let alone all the lovely people on these comments.

  • Becca Breining

    I am HORRIFIED OF ME, you, the action…all the above when it comes to vomiting. Unlike you, for some reason I feel more comfortable having those around me aware of my fear so that if I panic, they understand. Also if someone is sick, I need to know every symptom, what they ate and where they think they caught it! I become obsessed! For example a few weeks ago I pulled up to my favorite restaurant and a girl was barfing out of the side of her car. I refused to go in the restaurant and then continued to obsess over it for several days. Why was she sick? What did she eat? Was she maybe pregnant? Was it the stomach bug? Perhaps she ate something bad. I try to remember what her face looked like in case I see her again. I will now possibly forever drive by that location and think about that, also avoiding ever parking in that spot!

    I avoid hospitals, amusement parks, long car rides, airplanes, public restrooms, boating trips(cruises) day cares, anything were I know sick people may be. Whats fascinating is once I do get sick (which I can count on one hand in my whole life) right after, I realize how stupid it is and how it’s really not THAT bad! But once the anticipation builds up again, I’m horrified! This could possibly be genetic, as my mom has the same exact phobia, except unlike me she doesn’t like to talk about it or obsess as much as I do.

    I continue to try to live life without letting it run my daily thoughts (although this has yet to happen). I will probably always be a vegetarian, check dates on food labels, wash my hands, carry Altoids (good for nausea), pepto and anti anxiety medication. In some ways it has gotten better over the years, and worse in other ways. Fear is hard to define, and the lack of control is what horrifies me the most. I pray that someday when I have children I can live without the running concern of them getting sick and be able to function as a “normal” member of society.

    It feels comforting to know that there are others out there. Occasionally, I run across people with this phobia, yet they all tend to differ a bit. The thought of us all being friends gives me anxiety as none of us could really be there for each other during a panic! Haha!

    Thank you for your message! We can get through this!

    • Val

      Yes! This: “Whats fascinating is once I do get sick (which I can count on one hand in my whole life) right after, I realize how stupid it is and how it’s really not THAT bad! But once the anticipation builds up again,”

  • Ruby Rowe

    It’s so great to see that there are other people out there with the same fear as me! I’m in college and I still have fully blown panic attacks when I start to feel sick. Funnily enough, it’s often just me convincing myself that I’m feeling sick which starts the panic, then I really feel it! I have actually gotten a little better since going to university though because I want to go out and socialize at parties, even though I know people there might drink too much and throw up. Last year at a party I was at, a guy had too much to drink and passed out. I was the first one to find him, and being in a situation where I had to put aside the fact that he’d thrown up and was covered in vomit and check that he was breathing and help him was a bit of a turning point for me. I’m still really paranoid about getting sick and catching something, but I think I’ve managed to work through my fear a little. Thanks so much for the article! I’ve never told my friends about it, but my Mum knows and she’s very understanding, so it’s good to have other people with the fear to discuss their experiences!

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