Emetophobia: What it’s like to live in constant fear of being sick

It’s safe to say that literally nobody on the planet looks forward to being sick. No one gets excited about the prospect of feeling queasy, rushing to the loo and becoming closely acquainted with the toilet bowl. But for emetophobics, throwing up is more than just an unpleasant inconvenience – it’s a terrifying act so horrific they’ll do anything to avoid it.

Imagine only eating tiny portions of plain, dry food, avoiding long car journeys and totally refusing to go on a children’s slide in case it made you nauseous. These extreme measures were a reality for 30-year-old emetophobia sufferer Natalie Timotheou, whose life was totally controlled by her fear, until she finally got the help she needed.

Natalie developed a complicated relationship with food as a child, when she felt uneasy eating in front of others. By her early teens, she had become selective about what she would and wouldn’t eat.

Natalie, emetophobia sufferer

But it wasn’t until adulthood, when a divorce, single parenthood and career stress intensified Natalie’s existing anxieties, that the emetophobia started to take its toll. Despite only actually being sick twice in the last decade, Natalie lived in fear of what might happen if she were to get ill.

“At the beginning of this year my phobia had become so intense that I was only eating ridiculously small portions and my BMI was dangerously low,” she says “I couldn’t do anything that I thought might make me sick. I avoided things like going on the slide at the park with my son, eating before I drove just in case I was sick and I couldn’t pull the car over and eating anything other than my dry ‘safe’ foods was so daunting that I avoided them completely.”

“I had to sleep propped up on loads of pillows, to prevent me from choking on my sick in the night, I wouldn’t get in a lift, in case I was sick and became trapped in a small space with it, I couldn’t eat on first dates in case my nerves made me sick,” Natalie recounts.

She also became obsessed with food hygiene, checking best before dates again and again and throwing out perfectly good food in case it had the slightest chance of mould or bacteria growing on it, and wouldn’t leave the house without painkillers, Imodium, a sick bag, tissues and a bottle of water.

image of plate

Natalie’s weight loss concerned doctors, and she was referred to an eating disorder clinic, who diagnosed her with Avoidant or Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, which is different to Anorexia and Bulimia because it’s not about body image.

“I started seeing a consultant and a dietician, who checked up on my general health and gave me meal plans and food diaries to complete,” she recalls, “and I also started a course of antidepressants that were supposed to increase my appetite and give me more energy”.

However taking medication, counting calories and planning meals just wasn’t helping and after two months Natalie found herself completely out of action.

She recalls: “Someone suggested that I join an eating disorder forum online, so I started chatting to people on there. One day a girl messaged me and said ‘I think you’ve got the same thing as me, emetophobia’. I had no idea what it was, so I Googled it and the more I learned, the more it made sense.”

image showing weight loss

It was from here that Natalie found one of the UK’s only emetophia experts, hypnotherapist David Samson. “David explained that all phobias come back to something that happened before you were six, something that made you associate being sick with negative emotions,” she explains.

Through relaxation exercises, Natalie was able to revisit childhood memories and work out what had triggered the phobia and understand why she had become so afraid of being sick. “It all came back to three memories where I felt alone, unliked and I felt like no one could look after me,” she says, “They were memories I hadn’t thought to associated with emetephobia, things I didn’t think had any significance, but after talking to David it all made sense”.

After starting a hypnotherapy programme with David, Natalie finally felt like she was making progress. Within a fortnight she’d put on five pounds. “I had my ups and downs,” says Natalie, “but the little blips are part of the recovery process”.

woman looking in fridge

Six sessions later and Natalie is now able to do things she’d never dreamed she could do; “recently I was able to rub my son’s back and comfort him while he was ill,” she says, “previously I would have been looking away, saying ‘oh God oh God’ and waiting for it to be over”.

She was even able to deal with the inevitable; actually catching a bug and having to be sick. “Initially I panicked,” says Natalie, “but then I thought ‘no, if I’m going to be sick, it will make me feel better and I can cope with this’ and that is huge progress. I was sat by the toilet doing breathing exercises and thinking ‘no I’m OK, I’m not going to die’”.

Although emetephobia isn’t the most common phobia in the world, Natalie wants other sufferers to know that there is help out there. “You’re not alone,” she says “This is a phobia in its own right, it can be treated and you will make progress”.

For more information on emetophobia, visit David Samson’s website.

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