Agoraphobia, the fear of going out, is a common condition associated with emetophobia. It happens because of our fear of catching germs that could lead to vomiting – mainly norovirus (commonly called “stomach flu” or “stomach bug”).
Sometimes agoraphobia begins with not attending kids’ birthday parties, or family dinners and gatherings. It can begin in several ways, but no matter how it starts, what keeps it going is you making your world smaller and smaller. It can be gradual, so you don’t always realize it’s happening. Perhaps you finished school and don’t have a job. Or you stayed home to raise kids. Or you had a prolonged illness that kept you in the house. The thing is, once you start avoiding anything when you have a phobia, you make the phobia worse. Avoiding everything REALLY makes the phobia worse!
I once met a woman who had made her world so small that she lived in her bathroom. We didn’t know until we went in with a mental health team and the police that she was sitting in her shower, afraid to come out. She had not eaten in 4 days. Once transported to hospital against her will (under the Canadian Mental Health Act) she was told she was not allowed to leave there until she ate a full, proper meal. She had been living off Ensure® for the past several years, trusting her mother to spray the bottles with bleach before leaving them in the bathroom for her to drink. In the days leading up to being taken to the hospital, she had started fearing that the bottles may still be contaminated with norovirus.
Covid-19 has made the problem of agoraphobia significantly worse for people with emetophobia over the past year. Many folks began working from home. They no longer had to go to family birthdays or Christmas. No one was putting pressure on them to meet for coffee, go out to dinner or have a meeting over lunch. The kids couldn’t insist the family get in the car and drive somewhere. Amusement parks were closed! And there would be no flying on planes for a good long time. The feeling, expressed across social media emetophobia groups was a collective sigh of relief. I read things like “this lockdown is emetophobia heaven!” I thought to myself “Oh no – this is going to be emetophobia hell!” I was right.
Canada, America, and the UK are starting to open up. Here in Canada we’re lagging behind with vaccines because we don’t produce any ourselves. But about ⅔ of us have had one vaccine now, and people are starting to venture out. In America if you’ve been fully vaccinated you don’t need to wear a mask outdoors or indoors any more. So, what’s happened with the emetophobia community? Well, a lot of you are now terrified to go out, even though you’ve also been fully vaccinated. You have to learn to eat out at restaurants all over again. You need to grocery shop. You can go back to work, school, and college. And that family vacation looms large in your catastrophic imagination. What should you do?
The answer is simple, yet not simplistic: start going out. Don’t despair if you once had to teach yourself that eating at a restaurant was ok, and now you will have to do it all over again. You will. There’s no way around it.
As with all exposure, start small. Do the easiest thing first and for goodness’ sake keep doing it! Exposure isn’t something you can check off a list. It means going out and tolerating the anxious feelings that come up, and keep doing it basically forever. The anxiety will become less and less, and then eventually it won’t bother showing up.
This isn’t a great situation for anyone to be in. The only saving grace is that you didn’t die of Covid.