What we’ve written below is a compilation of what we do to help our clients who have a fear of throwing up. We educate and normalize, we recognize faulty thinking and associations, and we teach kids to change these through acknowledging the physical symptoms for what they are (the anxiety alarm going off), changing mindsets, and changing behaviors. They are amazingly resilient and brilliant. We provide the information and tools, but they figure out how to use them in their lives to work through this fear.
The fear of throwing up is super common. The fancy word is emetophobia – yep, that means it’s so common they’ve come up with a name for it. Sometimes it starts out of the blue and often, it starts because you’ve had a bad experience with vomiting, either yourself or witnessing someone else vomiting. This is not surprising since, let’s be honest, throwing up is uncomfortable and can be gross, even though your body is doing what it’s supposed to do. No one ever wakes up and gets excited about or wants to throw up. When you have a “bad” experience related to illness or throwing up, your safety control center in your brain – the amygdala — turns on to protect you from this unpleasant experience, even though you don’t really need to be protected from it. Then you have anxiety about the possibility of you or someone else throwing up. When the safety control center goes on alert, it sends signals to your body to get ready to protect itself. This is awesome if you’re about to be truly in danger, but not so awesome when that level of protection is simply not needed. BUT, your body still feels on alert.
The problem is your amygdala (Let’s call it Wanda—because its a fun name that can make us laugh) tries to tell you that you might throw up when your body is just saying heads up, watch for danger. In particular, one of the physical symptoms you feel in your body when you worry is a swirly, whirly feeling in your belly. The more worried you get the more your tummy hurts and even feels nauseous, even though that nausea isn’t related to having to throw up. Our brains mix up the signals.
When this happens, we have to break this strong thought and feeling pathway. Remember anxiety loves to try and surprise you, often when your brain starts to get quiet at night, before events, or in crowded spaces. Wanda says I’ll give you something to think about! But that’s not super fun and you can let Wanda know you’re actually OK. Be prepared for Wanda to show up. When Wanda show ups with worry thoughts and feelings every night before bed, before a performance, when anything different is going on, or when people are sick or say something about getting sick, you don’t have to be scared because you are armed and prepared!!! You’ll be like “AHA – there’s Wanda! I knew Wanda was coming.” Now, you get to let Wanda know that you’re actually OK and not needed.
Here are some other ideas that can help you work through the fear of throwing up:
How many times have you gotten that feeling and not puked? A million, zillion, trillion. So listen to the message that you need to do something that helps you feel calm instead of letting it make you feel more afraid and more anxious. Every time you listen and accept that worry thought as truth, it’s like putting one more stone in your belly and it makes it harder and harder to breathe, but you are taking the stones out. The more you boss back the Wanda the amygdala, the weaker the pathway becomes and the more in charge you are.
Use your senses to help interrupt the anxiety, redirect your attention, and send signals to your brain and body that it can calm and reset. Examples include: Touchpoints, lavender, Braintap, a Butterfly hug, a soothing stone, or a Calm Strip. Think of a place or time that makes you feel calm or happy, focus on what you are looking forward to, or simply stay tuned in to the actual moment you’re in. Ground yourself by naming 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. Feel the security of your weighted blanket and use your senses to smell the calming scent. Practice watching the swirly whirly disappear and float away as you say, “Thanks, but I’ve got this and we can relax and calm down. It’s a False Alarm. I’ve had this feeling a zillion times and haven’t gotten sick.”
Observe your thoughts, but know that they are not truths and you don’t have to absorb them and store them in your belly. Remind yourself, “Just because I have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true. I have come SO far in such a short amount of time.”
Remember, you are gaining skills that will never leave you. Remind yourself, “I feel Brave, safe, happy, peaceful, confident, and cheerful. It’s OK if I’m a little uncomfortable. That uncomfortable feeling will eventually go away if I let it.“ We know it will work bc it is already working.
Examples of evidence you are doing better:
I played two full basketball games, and one even went into double overtime.
Whenever I feel nervous I am able to calm and move through the uncomfortable feelings.
I am able to stay at school. I am so happy to be at school since that’s where I belong, with my friends and learning new things.
The fear of throwing up is a common fear that gets stuck in our brains. You have the power to retrain your brain and let it your amygdala know that you’re safe. Be thankful that it’s looking out for you, but let it know you’ve got this now. You’ve got a lot of life that needs to happen and you really don’t need a fear of throwing up tagging along and getting in the way. Every day, tell yourself what went well each day, what was fun, what you enjoyed, and what did to take control and boss back Wanda. You got this, day by day, bit by bit!