Written by Psychologist Nikolina Miljus.
Worrying how you will cope with morning sickness when you have emetophobia or are anxious about vomiting? Read on to find out how you can deal with emetophobia and enjoy your pregnancy.
Up to 7% of women will experience emetophobia or the fear of nausea and vomiting at some point in their lives. The joy of becoming a mom can be quickly replaced by anxiety stemming from the most common pregnancy symptom – morning sickness.
None of us would say they like feeling sick or vomiting. What separates someone with emetophobia is the terrifying fear of anything closely related to vomiting. The fear levels associated with emetophobia can quickly become a full-blown anxiety or panic attack.
What is emetophobia?
Emetophobia is a complicated fear that can involve the fear of feeling sick, fear of vomiting, and also the fear of coming into contact with vomit. Chest tightness, rapid heartbeat, hyperventilation, and feeling like you are about to die when there is even a remote possibility of nausea or vomiting are all typical indications of emetophobia.
The exact causes of emetophobia are not fully known. The current understanding of emetophobia (2) links its origin to an overwhelmingly traumatic event from early childhood. Usually this incident involved physical pain, feelings of helplessness and fear in combination with sensations of feeling sick.
The fear of panic attacks can lead someone who has emetophobia to avoid certain foods or refrain from close contact with others due to the fear of possible infection. It’s common for women with emetophobia to dread pregnancy because of the high possibility of morning sickness and the subsequent issues that can cause.
Based on the experiences of emetophobic women who successfully gave birth and psychological tools that can help cope with phobic fear, here is a comprehensive list of strategies you can use to deal with morning sickness when you have emetophobia.
1. Learn how to calm your fears
Understand why you are experiencing morning sickness
Morning sickness is a good indicator that your pregnancy is going well and that your baby is healthy, one recent study confirms. Moreover, morning sickness is also linked to a lower risk of miscarriage.
The increased production of female sex hormones in pregnancy prepares your body and supports the fetal development but can also cause morning sickness. Increased sensitivity to smell and proneness to acid reflux contribute, too. For most women, morning sickness subsides by week 16. Only a tiny percentage of women (one in 100 pregnant women) encounter a more severe form of morning sickness.
Morning sickness does not always involve vomiting. Even though feeling nauseous alone can be terrifying if you are emetophobic, knowing that roughly 50% of women who have morning sickness never vomit can be helpful.
Calm the anxiety and ease the panic
Relying on the rational side of your brain and reassuring yourself that morning sickness is not a sign that something is wrong is only the first step. The next step is learning how to calm your fears by controlling the physical aspect of the panic attack before it completely overwhelms you.
The fear and anxiety that accompany emetophobia are particularly unpleasant because they cause you to think the worst is going to happen. Muscle tension, shivering, hot flashes, a rapid heartbeat, and hyperventilation are all physical signs of panic attacks and are responsible for generating terrifying thoughts.
Learning how to control your breathing and relax your muscles is not a complicated process. All you need is a quiet spot, at least 30 minutes of being undisturbed, and some basic instructions.
Practice deep breathing by yourself. Follow a simple 4-4-6 rule: count to four while you breathe in through your nose, then hold in your breath while counting to four, then slowly breathe out through your mouth while counting to six. Alternatively or as well, you can listen to free guided meditation audios.
2. Help your body cope with morning sickness
Food is your friend
Avoiding food for fear of getting sick is not the way to go when you are pregnant. Eating the right foods before you get hungry is.
Some basic guidelines to keep in mind are:
- A bite to eat before you get out of bed can reduce morning sickness, and small but frequent meals during the day can help as well.
- Choosing lighter and bland foods helps, as they don’t irritate your sense of smell.
- Keep well hydrated: sipping ginger or mint tea can help with nausea. Avoid drinking water during your meals.
If you are taking prenatal vitamins in the morning, you might want to consider taking them at bedtime. Some supplements like iron can contribute to nausea. Taking them at night might allow you to sleep while they are digested.
Additionally, vitamins like B6 can help to manage morning sickness and are often prescribed. Ask your obgyn or your midwife to include them in your regime.
Pregnancy-safe antiemetic medication
The stress of emetophobia alongside feeling unwell can accumulate and influence your pregnancy in a negative way. Discussing over-the-counter or prescription antiemetic (anti-nausea medication) with your medical professional is important. Taking medications such as Zofran or Phenergan can be a safer option compared to continued distress.
This is the route that most emetic women take.
Alternative morning sickness options
Alternative treatments to manage morning sickness, such as acupressure wristbands used for travel sickness, aromatherapy, or hypnotherapy are pregnancy-safe and can provide you with some relief from nausea.
Get plenty of rest
Give your body a fair chance to cope with all the physical changes pregnancy carries: get plenty of sleep and stay away from work or household-related stress. Tiredness can contribute to more frequent morning sickness.
Light activity, such as walking or moderate exercise if you feel you can manage, can be just what you need. Physical activity helps your brain secrete happiness hormones called endorphins which can ease the distress caused by emetophobia at least a little.
3. Find support and professional help
Share your fears with someone you trust
Emetophobia is thought to be the 5th most common phobia, yet women who experience it are often reluctant to share their concerns mostly because they believe their fear will be devalued as not “serious” enough as some other phobias.
Don’t allow thoughts like these prevent you from confiding in someone you trust, like your partner, a close friend, or a close relative. Your phobia is not less severe than any other, and you should not be enduring this alone, especially when you are pregnant.
Don’t hide your emetophobia from your obgyn or midwife
Make sure you share with your obgyn the extent of how your emetophobia is affecting your pregnancy. The stress brought on by living in constant anxiety can cause physical consequences to your body and distress your growing baby.
Moreover, living in a constant state of anxiety takes away the joy of your pregnancy. Talking with a professional about available psychotherapy and counselling choices, as well as medical treatments available can enable you to move past the fear and find joy in being pregnant.
(1) Clinical Features, Prevalence and Psychiatric Complaints in Subjects with Fear of Vomiting, Wiljo J. P. J. van Hout and Theo K. Bouman
(2) Emetophobia: A fear of vomiting, Abhijeet D. Faye, Sushil Gawande, Rahul Tadke, Vivek C. Kirpekar, and Sudhir H. Bhave