Can Imagination Be An Emetophobia Treatment?

What if just imagining the threat of vomiting gave you the same fearful feelings as actually doing it? Well, first of all, that sounds pretty scary. We go through enough anxiety from the fear of vomiting without adding to it by imagining it! So it’s not something anyone would do in their spare time. However, in the safe setting of a therapy appointment for emetophobia treatment, perhaps it could be quite useful.

Think about it for a moment. If you have a fear of, let’s say, puppies (yes, it’s a real thing), then all I need to do is put a puppy in a crate at the end of the hallway. For gradual exposure, you just need to inch closer and closer to the crate until you can finally touch the crate, unlock the door, reach your hand in a for a moment, etc. Ah….how divine would it be to have a phobia of puppies, eh? Because once you’ve received treatment and you’re over your phobia what do you get? A PUPPY! A WARM, FURRY, LICKY, CUDDLY, JUMPY, TAIL-WAGGY, ADORABLE PUPPY!!!

What do WE get? *sigh*  We get to throw up. Whoop dee doo.

Anyway, back to the main point. We can’t put ourselves vomiting at the end of the hall in a crate and slowly approach it. So we therapists have to get very creative. Some therapists think that an acceptable emetophobia treatment would be to just make yourself vomit. They used to sell something called syrup of ipecac in drug stores. You were meant to buy it and have it in your cupboard at home in case your kid swallowed some sort of poison so you could give it to them and induce vomiting. They don’t recommend this now, as many things that a kid could swallow would harm them more if they vomited. They don’t even sell it at all here in Canada – it’s not even on Amazon. Anyway, it’s a terrible idea to drink ipecac or use any other method to vomit on purpose. Some therapists want you to stick your finger down your throat like the bulimics do. Terrible idea. It’s like having a gigantic rabid Pitbull at the end of the hallway, and not in a crate. Therapists aren’t very creative if they can’t think of any other way to treat emetophobia than to make their clients sick. All healthcare providers should remember the jist of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm

So what are we left with, then? Well, there are pictures and sounds and videos and those help, but there is also the idea that you can work with clients in their imaginations and/or memories. And the good news is that there is a good amount of science behind it. The latest study (December, 2018), relating to anxiety disorders, just came out of the University of Colorado Boulder and Icahn School of Medicine researchers.[1] These folks got 68 people to hear a sound an experience a mildly unpleasant shock. They then divided everyone into three groups. The first group heard the sound, but didn’t receive the shock. The second group imagined the sound, but didn’t receive the shock, and the third group imagined sounds of birds and rain falling. 

The results were pretty amazing. In the first group who heard the sound with no shock, eventually they desensitized to the sound. Enough times without the shock and the sound didn’t bother them anymore. The amazing part is the second group who just imagined the sound – they also were initially “fearful” but then the more they imagined the sound, the less afraid they were of it. And their brains showed the same parts “lighting up” on the fMRI.

This has great consequences for phobia therapy. Imagination can be a powerful tool. It can be used in a few ways:

  1. The client can imagine vomiting, rather than having to experience it.
  2. The client can imagine a calm, peaceful place as part of an overall strategy to calm the body. Apparently imagining the beach and being there are the same thing to many parts/systems in your brain!
  3. Clients can imagine something they fear, and further imagine coping with it well, rather than avoiding, using safety behaviours or refusing to take part in the exposure. Sports psychology uses this theory all the time: imagine making the shot, the goal, the swing. Work it out in imagination first, then execute it.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go imagine I’m eating a peanut-butter-cup Blizzard from Dairy Queen so I don’t gain any more Covid pounds!


[1] Reddan et al., 2018, Neuron 100, 994-1005.

Emetophobia and the fear of sound

Emetophobia is not just the fear of vomiting. It is also the fear of anything to do with vomiting. The sight, the smell, the sound, the contagions. Most of my clients are more afraid of being sick themselves than they are of seeing or hearing other people. But yet, whenever someone in their own house is sick, they’re usually terrified that the family member has somehow contracted Norovirus and that they’re contagious.

I believe my phobia began sometime before I can really remember, but it was made a thousand times worse between the ages of eight and nine when my dad was sick with colon cancer. He was vomiting often, and it sounded like death. Sadly, he did die when I was nine so that probably reinforced the phobia for me. To this day no one has sounded as horrible or as unique as my dad when he was sick. I thought in later years that perhaps I was imagining it, or at least embellishing the memory. Until one day when I was in my forties I heard my aunt (dad’s sister) talking to another sister about how awful my dad sounded when he was sick. She recounted visiting him in the hospital once after he’d had surgery as a young man. In those days anesthetic was ether, and it made people terribly sick. The funny part about the story is that she went to the nurse’s station to ask his room number, but then heard him vomiting at the end of the hall in his room and knew right away by the sound that it was him.

As time went on, I married and had three children. My husband did not vomit for 32 years, even though he’s not the least bit afraid of it. I could not have chosen a more appropriate mate. But then there were the kids. When we had a young family we were pretty cash-poor, so there was no way I could go to a hotel room. After my successful emetophobia treatment we were a bit better off, but I no longer needed the hotel! Back when the kids were young if I heard anything that remotely resembled them being sick in the night I would race down to our basement rec room, curl up on a most uncomfortable couch and plug my ears tightly with my fingers. And cry. There was lots of crying back then. My kids would cry for me, and I would cry for myself and my husband was probably crying that he had to deal with it all. Those kids are 44, 37 and 35 now and I have seven grandchildren. They’re all very well-adjusted, educated and productive members of society with no phobias of their own and I have a great relationship with each of them. I share that not to brag, but to reassure you that if you’re doing what I did your kids can still turn out ok.

I’ve had clients who book a hotel room, who sleep in their cars, who go to their mother’s, who camp out downstairs or in the attic. One client insisted that their “mortgage helper” suite be left empty so she could move into it every time someone in the family was ill.

The treatment for emetophobia involves, among other things, desensitization to the sounds of vomiting. Most people with emetophobia are afraid of being sick themselves, while some are just triggered by the sight or sound. Either way, nobody likes to hear it. I used to have three or four sounds that I found on the internet which I went to great length to find, and used those in my emetophobia treatment program. But then I found this great website that has 88 sounds of vomiting, and it’s free for anyone to use! Here’s the link if you’re interested: https://www.soundsnap.com/tags/vomit You can begin by having your volume very very low, and then slowly increase it. Try all 88! The great thing is that it will desensitize you to the sound if you work on it, so you can be in a hospital ward with the curtain drawn, be a couple rows behind someone on a bus or plane, or be in your own house minding your own business and listen to someone vomit. It’s all the same. Good luck!

B.R.I.T. – A Way to calm anxiety

According to the experts – scientists who study anxiety and treatments – the best way to deal with an anxiety or panic attack is to do nothing. Just let it be. Don’t run away from what triggered it, don’t use a safety behaviour so you’re not sick, don’t even think about it, which means don’t battle it in your mind and try to stop it. If you can do that, then the anxiety will come to a peak and then slowly dissipate on its own, all within 15-20 minutes. EASY FOR THEM TO SAY, EH?

There – you got my little bit of Canadian for today! The formula, according to said experts is:

Notice it

Acknowledge it

Don’t engage with it

“Just notice it” my therapist used to say. It made me so mad. How the H-E-double-hockey-sticks could I NOT notice it? (I’m on a Canadian roll now, eh? Go Canucks!) But seriously, I used to go from 0-10 in 1/5000th of a second. I wondered if anyone who came up with these ideas had ever actually had a panic attack. It troubled me deeply as I sought to help others with their emetophobia because I assumed that everyone was like I used to be.

As the years and the clients clicked by I started to notice a pattern with them. They were not like me. In fact, I have met or talked online to very few people who reacted as I did to the triggers. I basically felt well and healthy every day of my life. I never felt nauseous, icky or “off.” So I’d be going along minding my own business when one of my three kids would come up to me and say, “Mom, my tummy hurts.” ZAPPO! 10/10. I had no time to “notice it” or “acknowledge it” – that was just crazy talk. Ironically, once I was successfully treated for the phobia and wasn’t afraid of vomiting anymore, I started to notice that I got anxious about other things. It’s like before – if everyone was feeling good – I didn’t care what else happened to me or anyone else in the world. No one was going to vomit, so everything was great! Once I got over the emetophobia I realized that I was still an anxious person, because I was born that way (and so were you). NOW, when the grandkids go to the playground I’m the one thinking OMG HE’S ONLY 2 AND HE’S AT THE TOP OF THE SLIDE!!!! My point? It’s not 10/10 – it’s maybe 4 or 5, and then the more I watch him the more it creeps up and up and up. I just let it be, and eventually it goes away on its own.

Many of my clients are like that with emetophobia. They wake up feeling “off,” so they’re a little nervous – maybe 3/10. Then they eat breakfast and start to feel icky – 4-5/10. Then as the day wears on icky turns to worried which makes the icky worse and the numbers creep up. Now, I understand that your experience may also be different than that, but the point is that if your anxiety moves up slowly, then the experts are correct: do absolutely nothing about it.

Today’s little acronym is “B.R.I.T.” (How do you like that, peeps in the UK? eh? eh?) BRIT is not for the slow climb – just notice, acknowledge, and don’t engage those. BRIT is for the times when it goes HIGH QUICKLY. Or when you just can’t “do nothing” about your anxiety, and so it continues to rise. BRIT are the ACTIONS (Remember last week’s “A” in the STAR plan?) needed to calm down. They’re all tools you carry with you every single day. You don’t need a safety kit in your purse. You just need BRIT. So let’s go through them one by one.

Breathe

Your breath is your salvation! Learn to breathe slowly and evenly, deep into your abdomen. Let the out-breath be longer than the in-breath. Try “7-11 breaths” – breathe in for 7 counts, out for 11. Check out my YouTube Video on how to breathe properly to help bring anxiety down: https://youtu.be/PPkUWoloQog

Relax

“Relax” means to relax, soften and drop the large muscle groups in your body starting from your forehead and eyes, and extending down to your toes. In order to do this effectively you have to practice it. I give all my clients a sheet of paper with the numbers 1-90 on it so they can check off the number of times they listened to a 20-minute recording teaching progressive muscle relaxation. Just putting on a recording when you’re anxious will not help you very much. You need to learn the technique much like learning a piano concerto or an entire hip hop routine. You can’t just tell someone to do either of these – they have to learn the notes/steps and practice until it’s just “body memory.” It’s the same thing with this. Your body has to know where to go. Here’s a link to one of my progressive muscle relaxation recordings. There are many more on YouTube: https://youtu.be/XfF5Srxtj9M

Shout out to PianistMiri who improvised on harp with me to make these! https://www.youtube.com/user/pianistmiri She does WICKED piano covers of popular songs!

Imagine

Studies have been done on the brain where a person was shown an object such as a cabbage in an fMRI machine. The next day the person was put in the MRI machine again and told to remember the object from the day before. The cool thing is that the brain lit up exactly the same way. Like, exactly. So of course the “logic” part of the brain knew the cabbage wasn’t there – that the subject was just imagining it on the second day. But the rest of the brain did not know. Psychologists got hold of this and used it for anxiety recovery. Imagine you are in the most peaceful, tranquil, calm and beautiful place in the universe. Really imagine it. Your brain won’t know you aren’t actually there.

Using the “imagine” tool may be helpful when sitting on in an airplane, but not as helpful if you’re at the front of the room giving a presentation. It’s ok – you have three other tools.

Think

Sometimes when we’re busy emoting (aka freaking out) we fail to THINK. Thinking can calm the troubled mind and body. Use positive, calm and rational thoughts. I used to write mine down on a business card and carry it with me all the time when I was working on my emetophobia. I volunteered at the hospital, and one day I walked into a patient’s room and she was very nauseous, holding one of those cardboard bowl things under her chin. I could not take the card out and read it, but I reached into my pocket with my hand and just felt it. That really helped. Here are some positive thoughts (“positive cognitions”) that have helped me, and many of my clients. In fact, my clients came up with most of them:

  • You’re not in any danger
  • It feels dangerous but it isn’t
  • Usually the worst doesn’t happen
  • If it really happens, your anxiety will go down.
  • Vomiting isn’t dangerous or harmful. It can’t hurt me, so I don’t need to be afraid of it
  • There’s no point being afraid all of the time for something that happens so little of the time/rarely
  • It doesn’t matter if I vomit
  • Even if I get sick, I will be ok.
  • I’m perfectly safe
  • It doesn’t matter
  • I can cope with vomiting

Coping With Emetophobia – The S.T.A.R. Plan

Often before people with a fear of vomiting can get help they are left alone, terrified and feeling hopeless. They might not even know that being afraid of vomiting has a name: emetophobia. Some academics refer to it as “Specific Phobia of Vomiting” or SPOV. The treatment for emetophobia involves making a list of all the things that you avoid because you’re afraid, and all the safety measures you employ so you don’t get sick. This website has a “Resources” section that thousands of therapists already use for gradual exposure to some of those things. You start with the easiest thing on the list and work your way to the most difficult. You’ll normally need the help of a qualified therapist with experience treating emetophobia.

The goal in treating emetophobia is to have you come to the realization that vomiting isn’t the problem – anxiety is the problem. Once you get there, you’ll be able to tolerate your anxiety and do nothing to stop it. And once that happens, you will stop getting anxious in the first place. For some of you reading this, that may seem like a long way off. Others of you may think (as I once did) “I’ll never be able to tolerate that much anxiety! It’s terrifying and horrible!” It’s true that tolerating anxiety that goes immediately from 0/10 to 8, 9, or 10/10 is probably not possible. If it’s a slow rise, however, you may be able to avert it from getting to those high numbers, but if you’re like I was, it was usually zero to 10 in a millesecond.

So I came up with a plan that I call the S.T.A.R. Plan©. My S.T.A.R. Plan was inspired by the writers of “Coping Cat” and “The Cat Project” who came up with a “F.E.A.R.” plan for anxious children. It wasn’t quite right for emetophobia, but I loved the idea of a plan.

If you find yourself in a situation that triggers your emetophobia, it’s always good to have a plan. If you’re anything like I once was, your plan would be to get triggered, freak out and run. If you are triggered by your own nausea, however, it’s impossible to run, so you apply safety behaviours like asking for reassurance online or at home, or taking some stomach medication. This may help calm you down in the short-term, but as far as helping to treat your emetophobia for good, ass Dr. Phil might say, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

S stands for “Scale” which refers to the 11-point scale that therapists use to determine how anxious you are. Zero means no anxiety at all, and 10 is the worst panic possible. When your emetophobia gets triggered, your anxiety will go up to one of the numbers on the scale. If you want to get better, it’s important for you to know what number you’re at. Sometimes you may become so anxious that you forget the S.T.A.R. plan, so it’s good to have a support person remind you by asking “what number are you at?”

T stands for “Tolerate.” The best way to get over a phobia is to stay in the situation and tolerate the anxiety without doing anything or thinking anything to make it go away. Different people are able to tolerate different levels (0-10) of anxiety. Your ability to tolerate the anxiety may also be dependent upon how quickly the number went up. If you can tolerate it, great. If not – move on to the “A.”

A stands for “Action.” If you can’t tolerate the anxiety, you can ask yourself “what actions could I take to bring down my anxiety?” These actions require learning and practice, which is the topic of another blog, but basically here are four actions that should help (They spell “BRIT”):

  • Breathe slowly and deeply. Slow is more important than deep.
  • Relax the major muscle groups in your body, head to toe. Relax your body. Try doubling your relaxation, then doubling again.
  • Imagine yourself in a safe, peaceful place if you can.
  • Think. I teach my clients to come up with a “mantra” of sorts to say to themselves. Mine was “You’re not in any danger,” but there are many more that my clients have come up with over the years. My favourite is “Vomiting is not dangerous or harmful. It can’t hurt me, so I don’t need to be afraid of it.”

R stands for “Repeat.” So all you have to do is go back to the beginning (the “S”) and ask yourself what number on the Scale of 0-10 are you at now? Most of the time you’ll find that your anxiety has gone down a point or two. So maybe you can Tolerate it now. If not, keep going through the S.T.A.R. plan until your anxiety is low enough to tolerate. Good luck!

Exposure Therapy

I’ve been “talking” with emetophobia folks online since 2000. Over these twenty years I’ve seen more people misinformed about what exposure therapy is than I’ve seen people who’ve tried it. It’s probably better to start off with what exposure therapy is not.

Exposure therapy is not just randomly running into a situation that exposes you to someone vomiting, or you, yourself feeling very ill. Yes, if you go to a birthday party and a kid is suddenly sick in front of you then I suppose you have been exposed to what you fear most. But the “therapy” part is missing. Therapy comes from the root word for “healing” and just randomly being exposed to vomiting and having the bejeezus scared out of you does nothing for your healing. In fact, it may make your phobia worse by re-traumatizing you.

For exposure to be therapeutic, it has to be structured. If you go to a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) therapist they will normally build a hierarchy with you. Since this is difficult for most emetophobics to do, I have a good hierarchy that works for pretty much everyone right here on my website under “Resources” – “Exposure.” The current literature on anxiety and exposure therapy says that a list is as good as a hierarchy anyway. So you make a list of everything that frightens you. Or go to my website exposure section. Then you would normally begin with the least frightening thing, and progress slowly to the most frightening (which is normally watching explicit videos, hearing sounds or mixing up something that looks and smells like vomit).

Seriously. Don’t freak out. The final, most difficult steps ALWAYS seem impossible when you’re just starting out. But that’s the beauty of exposure therapy – it begins with something SO EASY and you go SO GRADUALLY that by the time you get to the difficult stuff, you hardly notice. Think of it like this: you’ve fallen down a hole, are terrified and you can’t get out. Then you notice there are a set of steps to climb up to get out. If you go one step at a time it’s easy to get up and out, but if you just look at the top step and think “I can’t possibly get up there” then you may not even try to take that first step. You’ll just sit at the bottom in the hole and cry. I did that for about thirty years.

The first steps in my online hierarchy are as simple as looking at the word “vomit.” There. You just did it. You may not have liked it, but you’re ok right now, ya? Then we look at some other words. If those are too difficult then we might just begin by imagining a scene where you’d be a little afraid.

In addition to the exposure resources I have online, I get all my clients to make a list of everything they avoid and all the safety behaviours they have. An example of an avoidance behaviour is perhaps not making medical appointments. An example of a safety behaviour is feeling nauseous and taking ginger or mints.

I usually wait until we’ve looked at all the words and drawings and cartoons and pictures and then have my clients begin to approach things they previously avoided, and/or stop using a safety behaviour. I assign this work as homework and check in each week. Then at the next session we begin looking at videos, which also start with simple things like a baby spitting up.

It’s not enough to just look through all my exposure resources to prove that you “can.” Anyone can white-knuckle it through the list and then feel great relief that the exercise is over. Your phobia will not improve. In fact, it will make your phobia worse to do that because the part of your brain that’s giving you all the trouble will say, “Wow, it sure feels good NOT to looking at that stuff now. To continue feeling good, I’ll avoid it forever.”

At each stage of the exposure, you must look at an item, record your fear level 0-10, and then either try to tolerate the fear level (if it is below 7) while still looking at the picture or use previously-learned skills to bring the number down below 7 where it can be tolerated. So you keep looking at the item until you are no longer afraid.

Sometimes if clients are recording rather low numbers for a few pictures in a row, I ask them to purposely raise their anxiety level. This ensures that the client is not “white-knuckling” their way through the pictures.

So….is it scary? The answer is yes, a little. But normally my clients’ anxiety levels only go up to about 5, maximum. That’s how I like to work with people. It’s a little scary, but it can be tolerated. Before long, they come to realize that all anxiety can be tolerated with a little practice.

Sex and emetophobia

It wasn’t until a client once asked me if it were ok to talk about sex that I started to think about sex and emetophobia. I reassured them that they can talk to me about absolutely anything. One might think that we 60-something grandmas don’t know much about the subject except for the missionary position in a long flannel nightie, but let me revamp our image for you: we went to college in the 70s. THE SEVENTIES. All the girls were on birth control pills, and there wasn’t any disease you could catch from a partner except gonorrhoea, which if you were so unfortunate, could be cleared up with one dose of penicillin. The good old days before herpes and HIV. Imagine it.

My first counselling gig was at the University of Waterloo “Peer Counselling Centre” in 1976. With some good, solid training, we volunteered a few hours a week talking to our peers about sex, birth control, abortion, being gay, being born in the wrong gender. Yes, 44 YEARS later we’re still talking about that.

But I digress. Emetophobics actually have a few things to worry about when it comes to sex, especially with some of the latest activities that many couples enjoy. What’s worse is that they’re often afraid to share these fears with their sexual partner.

I’ll try to be crystal clear, so you may want to read this blog in private.

Oral sex

Oral sex can present a problem to either male or female emetophobes. For the (straight) female or gay male the possibility of gagging on either the penis or the ejaculate can be terrifying. Men can become equally terrified of their partner gagging and even vomiting during oral sex. There are some emetophobic queer women who are quite reluctant to perform oral sex on another woman.

anal sex

Considering that Norovirus particles are contained in fecal matter, anal sex can be daunting whether one is the giver or the receiver. The problem is that the penis (or sex toy) is removed, theoretically contaminated. And then what do you/they do with it? We all know it’s not getting near your mouth anytime this century. But does he know that?

anilingus

Yep. I had to look that one up. Thanks to a comedy routine by Chris Rock, I heard it was called “tossing his salad.” Apparently there are a plethora of other terms. Suffice it to say that your average emetophobic would not be caught dead doing this one, which involves your tongue and your partner’s anus.

anal-digital stimulation

What’s he going to do with that hand now?

the solution

This may seem ridiculously simple, but you have to talk to your partner about the kind of things you like to do, and what you feel uncomfortable with. If you’re afraid to do just about everything, and your partner really wants to be adventurous then perhaps they aren’t the right partner for you. But if you’re already married to them, then there needs to be some give and take. Explain what frightens you. It’s easy enough for him not to push his penis too far into your mouth, and to let you know when he’s about to ejaculate. If they want anal sex, you might have to negotiate a shower afterward before doing anything else. You get the idea. Talk. If you can’t talk to someone with whom you’ve taken off all your clothes, then who can you talk to?

The other, perhaps more obvious solution, is to get treatment for your emetophobia. It really is treatable, and you don’t need to be afraid of the many things in life that non-emetophobics enjoy forever.

Best of luck, and remember that you can discuss anything with your therapist if need be.