Emetophobia is an intense fear of sick, or being sick. It is a surprisingly common symptom, and most emetophobes incorrectly believe that the phobia is impossible to resolve.
Recently, Jess successfully went through the Thrive Programme and has overcome her emetophobia. At its worst, she became bedbound and isolated herself from life. She was anorexic and self harmed for 10 years and considered suicide to avoid getting sick.
Her story is hugely inspiring, not just for emetophobes, but for anyone whose life has been blighted by any form of anxiety. Despite initially feeling sceptical about the Thrive Programme, her tenatiousness, determination and sheer effort have lead to her success! Well done Jess 🙂
She has kindly answered a number of questions about the emetophobia and about the Thrive Programme. I hope that her candid and honest responses will help to encourage and advise other emetophobia sufferers currently going through the programme, or contemplating doing so...
What did you believe was the cause of your emetophobia?
had this illness and could never be free of it, but never truly feeling I had the right answer.
How did the emetophobia affect you? How bad was it, at its worst?
The severity of the emetophobia has fluctuated throughout my life; it felt as if it had crept up insidiously but by the age of 10 it became a constant preoccupation. The emetophobia for me wasn’t just about avoiding things that might make me sick, or expose me to other people being sick. It was a constant fear of being sick out of the blue around other people, and therefore heavily restricted my social interactions as I didn’t trust my body and always felt the worst could happen at any moment.
I have been housebound a number of times because of emetophobia and also severely underweight. In fact, before starting the Thrive Programme I was even bed bound because of it, following a 5 month diagnosed “breakdown”. How can a phobia of sickness make you bed bound? Well, I feared that if I got out of bed/went for a shower/changed rooms I was going to be sick. I was showing so many physiological signs of anxiety I was adamant there was something seriously physically wrong with me despite an “all clear” from the GP.
During the “breakdown” I stopped eating solid food altogether but before that the emetophobia had always restricted my eating. I had safe foods, that were all white in colour, believing that if I was going to be sick white foods would be less aversive.
The emetophobia interfered with my high school attendance. In the early years I would be in the nurses office for almost the entire day instead of in lessons, with the nurses becoming more and more irate at me because I felt nauseous so much for no reason. When I was young emetophobia wasn’t heard of so my constant nausea and anxiety was blamed on disobedience and manipulation. Without any understanding or recognition that I needed help, it stuck around for another 20 years.
I was, for the most part, ostracised in my teenage years because I believed I couldn’t join in with what everybody else was doing. I couldn’t go out to pubs, theme parks, parties, clubs, have boyfriends, go on holiday, go to BBQ’s, restaurants… and the list goes on. As a result I was acutely isolated and depressed which meant I picked up some unhealthy coping mechanisms such as a 10 year bout of self harm and anorexia nervosa.
I had a fear of both myself and other people being sick. If I thought I’d been around someone who had a bug I’d cover myself from head to toe in antiseptic gel, including and especially my lips and face. I’ve run out of my home when there has been someone ill there and felt unable to return for days afterwards. I’ve kicked a housemate out of the house many a time in the middle of the night (even when it was snowing) because I felt sick and couldn’t bear to have anyone near me. I have had stomach bugs in my life and always came out of those experiences feeling I was cured because I handled it well. That would only last a day or so though before I’d be right back to acute emetophobia again. No amount of just getting sick will cure you if you don’t have the right thought processes alongside it.
Without wanting to be overly dramatic, it is the truth that I’ve impulsively planned suicide to avoid getting sick. This was before I was given anti-emetics by a GP which then became a massive crutch and I wouldn’t go anywhere without them. It was only when I had an adverse reaction to a newly prescribed anti-emetic (that kickstarted the breakdown) that I realised I can’t go on living like this, and sought out the Thrive Programme.
Despite all this, I finished school with great grades, graduated from university, and have had some semblance of a life. I was always just existing though. I wasn’t living. And I certainly wasn’t thriving. I’m a fighter, and always have been, but the emetophobia had been a heavy monster on my back for so long I couldn’t even imagine life without it.
What other methods/therapies had you previously tried to get over the emetophobia? What was the result of doing them?
I have had a lot of therapy over the years, of many different modalities. I was under the NHS mental health services as a teenager, and a young adult. Through them I had CBT-based help (which was supposed to include exposure therapy, but never did- thankfully?), DBT-based help and years of psychoanalysis. I have even put myself through an online exposure therapy course.
I was eventually discharged from the NHS, told that the emetophobia is too ingrained, too severe, and there is nothing they can do, I’m as well as I can be considering. Not happy with that I sought out further private help but nothing came close to tackling the emetophobia in particular. I became more and more despondent that emetophobia will always be a part of my identity, that I will never be able to live a “normal” life, and I just have to cope as best as I can.
How did you feel about doing the Thrive programme prior to starting - were you sceptical?
I was highly sceptical. It seemed too good to be true that something was proclaiming they could cure me of something I was told by professionals was INCURABLE. I simply had never thought of looking within myself to find the cause for the emetophobia. I never thought to look at my own foundations, my own thought patterns, my own beliefs. They seemed highly irrelevant and too “simple” to be a solution.
My desperation and determination led me to give the book a try (I’d bought the book two years previously but didn’t have the motivation or belief to get past chapter 2). In doing the book at home I was noticing small changes within my thinking and from there knew that this programme had huge potential to help – even if I needed some extra oomph from a consultant, Cara. By the time I started working with Cara I had hope, and any time I hit a blip and lost that hope, Cara kept hold of it for me until I was ready to pick it up again.
What are the main differences in how you feel about yourself and your life after completing the programme?
I no longer feel at the mercy of my own mind. Knowing that anxiety comes from my own internal actions, it isn’t an external gremlin that hits me out of nowhere, has made all the difference to my sense of self. I’m no longer walking around blindfolded constantly worrying about where the next danger lies; my eyes have been opened and I know I am in control of what I perceived to be dangers. I feel powerful in that I’ve tamed my brain and made it a part of my awareness and control.
My self-esteem is markedly improved. Since losing all functioning completely my self-esteem was rock bottom but now, every single day, I am proud of what I do knowing that my self-esteem comes from me, no one else. I feel happier within my own body, reflected by my choice of activities now. I feel more confident in my career and social interactions and this is visible to other people in my life too. I feel like a good person who deserves to be where I am.
Importantly for me, I also feel self-sufficient. I don’t feel I need someone else to get me through every day. I know my own two feet are strong enough now to be all the foundations I need to thrive. For the first time in my life I don’t feel like an empty shell. I feel enriched: I have hobbies, passions, skills, good qualities, a business that I love and am proud of, and a bucket list that I’m ticking things off every week!
Finally, and most importantly, I have self-respect. For my whole life I’d been treating myself with such contempt. The day I stopped berating myself for every little thing I could was the day I truly felt I was thriving. My sense of humour, as well as the sense of humour of Cara, was invaluable in achieving this new way of being.
What advice would you give to emetophobia sufferers who are contemplating doing the programme?
You are not too severe a case for this to work for. Regardless of how its dressed up, phobias are just symptoms that all come about because of the same fundamental issues. If you have more than one phobia (I had three diagnosed going into this programme) be sure to work on all three in terms of challenging avoidance behaviours etc. However, being multi-phobic doesn’t complicate things, this approach still works.
Try not to obsess too much about whether this will work or not for you. Cara said to me in the early days “if we get to the end of this programme and you’re still not thriving I won’t be scratching my head wondering why, everything you need is in this programme so we will easily be able to work out what you are missing”. She was entirely correct. It may take a little while to bring everything on board but like a puzzle it does all come together eventually.
Finally, this programme isn’t just about tackling the emetophobia. You will be giving yourself the chance to work on any other difficulties you may feel you have: IBS, depression, chronic fatigue etc. You will end up looking at the relationships in your life, the place your past experiences have in your life, and the role of culture and religion. It is an MOT and service for your whole life!
What sort of effort did you have to put into the programme in order to make it a success?
PACE! Persistent and continuous effort! It was difficult to get the balance right initially. I would put in 150% effort, but without the knowledge of the full programme behind me, I would hit a blip within a week. I had to learn to take my foot off the accelerator a little bit and allow myself the space to process the mental work adequately. Once I had the idea of PACE installed in my thinking, progress was smoother. Every single day I would be setting myself challenges and achieving things but some days were less ground-breaking than others – and that was okay!
The idea of setting a PACE alarm (every 30 minutes) was helpful to keep me on track when I needed it. The Thrive journal also was useful for a few weeks to serve as a daily reminder of what I need to do to succeed. Being a perfectionist it was easy for me to complete all the ACTIONS in the book, and then some extras I set myself… but this programme does need to be taken seriously to work.
What did your consultant bring to your experience of the programme?
Cara is a helpful mix of firm but kind. She brought a “human explanation” to some aspects of the book that I found difficult to get my head around when studying it on my own. I was able to be honest when I truly wasn’t quite understanding something first time round. I have always been a deep thinker and can overcomplicate things sometimes (!!) but Cara was able to answer all my questions and keep me on the right path of understanding.
Cara is extremely perceptive in her way of working. She noticed things about me (both physically and emotionally) that helped further my understanding of myself immensely. She was far from just a trained consultant who read off a script following the outline of the book. She brought extra to the sessions that proved very helpful.
Cara also brought a healthy dollop of honesty to the programme which helped it feel less about a professional teaching a client. Instead, it was one genuine knowledgeable woman passing on information to another. The fact our sense of humour is cut from the same cloth kept the sessions fun and has given me some extra personal coping mechanisms that I shall never forget.