It started when Alicia Mitas was 7 and got sick on Easter.
“Ever since then, I started worrying about it every single day to my parents,” she says. “I would ask them a lot of questions about being sick or if I looked sick or why my stomach felt a certain way. And my parents knew after a while, ‘OK, this is not normal.’ ”
Mitas, now 18, suffers from emetophobia — the fear of vomiting or other people vomiting.
“It’s not just seeing someone throw up — everyone sees someone throw up in their childhood,” says Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “The Emetophobia Manual.” “But when it’s filled with anxiety on top of it, now there’s disgust and anxiety. Then, a phobia begins to develop, where the mind begins to amplify the situation, and people start to worry, ‘What if it happens again?’ ”
It’s become a hot topic on Tiktok, where a user who go by @acey.bibbee describes what she faces as being “deathly afraid of throw-up.” She and others are using the social media platform to try to spread awareness about emetophobia and its impact.
It’s getting a lot of attention: The hashtag #emetophobia has gotten more than 70 million views on TikTok.
In a video, @lacey.bibbee says she started experiencing it after listening to her father throw up all night before he had a stroke, which she says was ”so traumatizing.”
“I don’t know if I’m worried about getting thrown up on, getting sick myself or whatever,” she says. “If someone’s coughing, gagging, feels sick, looks sick, is sick, and they’re around me, it totally puts me in full-on panic mode.”
It typically affects people with a predisposition to anxiety, Goodman says, but also can be triggered by an event in a person’s life as early as childhood.
People who suffer from emetophobia sometimes also face obsessive compulsive disorder, he says.
“Sometimes, patients haven’t thrown up in 15 years, but they rearrange their life because of the fear,” Goodman says.
He says that can entrail being overly careful about what people eat, compulsively checking expiration dates, limiting alcohol consumption and trying to avoid situations tha tmight trigger motion sickness — like being in a car or on a boat or plane.
“I’ve had patients who would not drive in the car unless two or three hours had gone by after they ate,” he says. “You couldn’t go necessarily to eat at people’s homes because you never know how they cooked the food and where it came from.”
The International OCD Foundation says symptoms of emetophobia can be “debilitating” and that some might even decide not to have children out of fear of getting morning sickness.
For Mitas, the condition made school hard.
“I really did not have a social life in high school because I was so afraid of going out and then getting sick when I was out with my friends,” she says. At school, “Whenever I started to feel anxious or sick, I would always ask to either go to the guidance counselor or the nurse’s office. That was my safety.
“When you keep worrying, ‘What if I get sick, what if I get sick,’ ” Mitas says, “it makes you actually feel sick. It makes you feel nauseous, and it’s just this horrible cycle. My brain always tricks me into thinking that I’m sick when I’m actually not. And it’s just my anxiety making my stomach hurt.”
Goodman says it’s normal, when you’re anxious, to have physical symptoms, like sweating, a rapid heartbeat or stomach distress.
For people with emetophobia, Goodman says, often they “will feel nauseous. And that nausea will then lead them to believing it’s going to happen even though it never happens.”
Most people find throwing up unpleasant, of course. But there are two key distinctions between an average dislike of throwing up and emetopohbia.
“Everyone thinks of [vomit] as disgusting, but with someone with emetophobia, that disgust is amplified,” Goodman says, so they experience “intense anxiety prior to or in anticipation of it happening. So it’s not just throwing up. It’s throwing up and having intense fear over it.”
Still, many have never heard of emetophobia, even some therapists, Goodman says, which can make it harder to find treatment.
“This is not something that people have to live with for the rest of their life, but it takes a lot of determination, effort and patience,” he says. “It’s not something that will go away unless you’re committed to the treatment and getting better.”
Mitas says exposure therapy for her has been her “saving grace.”
She asks people not to tease sufferers, to “just be nice.”
“Don’t make fun,” she says. “I remember one time my dad jokingly pretended he was going to throw up when I was younger. He learned never to do that again.”
Read more at usatoday.com