Is the Fear of Throwing Up Ruining Your Life?

Is the Fear of Throwing Up Ruining Your Life? September 4, 2012

I hate throwing up more than anything in the world. It’s hands-down my biggest fear, something I have long battled.

And I’m not alone, it appears. Last week my daughter sent me a link to an article that said the secret to not throwing up was drinking lots of grape juice. The enlightening part of the article was not the grape juice part (although, believe me, I tucked that gem away), but the comments following. Woman after woman confessed that they, like the author of the article, also had a horrible fear of throwing up. They each told their stories, but all their stories were the same: They avoided people who had been sick. They freaked out whenever their own children got sick. Stomach flu in the house was terrifying. The lengths they admitted going to to avoid getting sick were extreme, the fear is that real. One researcher had a website dedicated to the cause. Others offer five-day e-courses that offer ‘cures.’

What it is that makes a person so fearful of a natural body function that they are willing to upend their lives to avoid it? What is going on under the surface that drives this phobia (yes, it’s a recognized phobia called emetophobia)?

It’s different for everyone. I never had this fear until the first time my daughter threw up. Waking up to her coughing and gagging and finding her mess in the crib simply terrified me. From that moment on, I had to sleep with a pillow over my head, so afraid I was of hearing her get sick. A few years later, a bad bug went through the house and another daughter vomited 25 times. That added to my fears, as I watched her dehydrate before my eyes. Before I knew it, I was going to great lengths to avoid my children catching this sickness. Cloroxing door handles after other children came over. Vigilant hand washing. Germ-X in all the cars.

Having struggled with this fear for almost two decades, and having coached women with the same fear, I want to share some of my discoveries about this subject:

1. Identify the fear

Ask yourself what you are really afraid of? The mess? The miserable children? Feeling terrible yourself? Isolating which part of the illness makes the fear seem smaller. One of the things I fear is the huge amount of effort I feel I have to spend keeping the house spotless when the kids are sick. Knowing I have to pull out the paper towels, empty trashcans, set up one ‘violated’ sink to rinse things in, keep other kids away from the sickie, washing doorknobs and toilet handles makes me hate the sickness more than, say, a head cold, where I do none of these things. Identifying this piece of the fear puzzle helped me decide to not go overboard if someone gets ill. Surprisingly, we are no sicker than when I was going to Herculean efforts to keep the house germ-free.

2.  Toy with the worst case scenario

Okay, so you hate throwing up. You hate your kids throwing up. But what’s the worst that can happen? Let’s say it’s the eve of a long-awaited trip and the kids get sick. What’s the worst that could happen? You would have to reschedule. Say it’s Christmas Eve. Celebrate a couple of days later. What if you are up all night for a week? Take naps. Plus, our bodies have a way of fitting sleep in, even if it’s interrupted sleep. What if your house is a mess? Give yourself two weeks to recover and pull things back together. What if your child vomits in the car? Keep a plastic cup in the cup holder for times they get ‘that’ look. Whatever your worst case scenario is, play it out to its worst conclusion and figure out how to deal with it. Most likely, the fear diminishes when brought to its logical end.

3.  Accept the inevitability

We will get sick. Repeat that. It WILL happen. Fighting it is like trying to keep the sun from coming up in the morning. So, if you know it’s going to happen…

4. Plan

Prepare an emergency kit with everything you need when the flu hits and put it in your linen closet. Ginger ale, paper towels, saltine crackers, small buckets, whatever. Being prepared has a way of minimizing the trauma.

5. Turn your focus from panicking to comforting

Sick kids need their mamas. From what I’ve read, some moms (including myself) panic so badly that they can’t offer consolation to their sick children. Some won’t even go near them when they are sick. But they need us terribly when they feel bad. By focusing more on their comfort than our fears, our fears lose some of their heft. Make beds cozy. Turn on a good movie. Hum a cheerful song. Who knows? Comforting them may comfort you, too.

6. Recognize ‘control’ is the culprit

One thing I’ve noticed about each and every emetrophobiac is that they are control freaks. The relaxed Type-B’s in my house don’t mind the sickness a tenth as much as the Type-A’s. Vomiting is the antithesis of control. It’s one thing we cannot will away (although, believe me, I try). Think about it. Controllers have greater fear of flying for the same reason-they aren’t in control. Babies get sick and roll with the punches. Controllers get sick and try to think through and figure out the next twenty-four hours blow by blow (no pun intended). “Okay, so this part should last only eight hours, then I’ll move on to the sweats and body aches. After that will be the desperate thirst followed by joint pain. Then…” We make it so big, it’s no wonder we dread it like the Plague. While there are some easy ways to avoid getting sick (hand washing being preventative measure #1), controlling every aspect of our children’s (and our) lives to avoid it isn’t worth it. Sooner or later, that house of cards crashes down. Do what you can and let the rest of the chips fall where they may.

7. Be thankful

I’m being serious. What does sickness have to offer you? Time to rest. Time to read. The opportunity to get your house good and clean. Time to bond with your babies. Time to learn servanthood. Time to lie on the couch together and just be. Time off from other obligations. That great ‘morning after’ feeling when the sun shines brighter and food tastes oh-so-good. So don’t begrudge it. Embrace, change your attitude, and watch your phobia slink back into the shadows where he belongs.

8. It gets better

For you mamas with young children who may not know this yet, most children get sick less with age. Their immune systems build up and stomach stuff comes around less and less as the years go on. I didn’t know that when I was younger. I thought we’d have four bouts a year, every year. But, thanks be to God, it rarely hits these days. So, hang in there, okay?


In writing this, I am writing mainly to myself. With a couple of kids in school this year, I know we’ll be exposed to more sickness. But I also know I’m ‘sick’ to death of living in fear. Life is too short to let the fear of throwing up spoil it. What is your fear causing you to miss out on? How would being free of this fear change your life?

If you’re someone who struggles with this, as ‘the’ season gets closer, I hope you’ll find a way out of your emetophobic prison. Or at least be able to crack open a door.

I also hope you’ll add your thoughts and suggestions to this discussion and share it so others may be encouraged. Thank you…as always.

p.s. If you didn’t get enough of this subject, check out my short essay (Oh, Retch That I Am) in the new MOPS devotional, Always There.


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