Sunday, January 9, 2011

Phobia Schmobia!

We all have fears - some of us are afraid of spiders, snakes or rodents. Others begin sweating several days before an airplane ride is scheduled. The thought of climbing a ladder can send some of us into a tizzy of anxious thoughts and a racing heart.

But what happens when a fear begins to take over our everyday lives? Soon we start looking for the source of anxiety in every situation we encounter. We begin avoiding certain events or places just because we are afraid of encountering that THING. A phobia is an irrational, intense fear, when our brains record an event as deadly or dangerous. In essence, we truly come to believe that the activity, thing or animal will harm us in some way, even if we realize that the reality of that happening is very slim.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a phobia of vomiting (supposedly this is called Emetophobia). As a child, we didn't label it a "phobia" but everyone knew that the second someone said they were feeling sick or needed to vomit, I was out the door faster than you could say "get the bucket." I never had the stomach flu as a kid, and I think that I willed myself to not get it.

My fear was manageable as a child, because it wasn't very often that I encountered someone who was vomiting. There were the several times my brother became sick, the one time a classmate vomited in our classroom, or the occasional poor kid that got carsick on the big yellow school bus. I worked through these events by running away when I could, or hiding under my coat, plugging my ears and humming.

No one understood where the fear had come from. Phobias generally develop when neutral, unconditioned, and conditioned stimuli trigger either conditioned or unconditioned responses. An example would be a person who was attacked by a dog (the unconditioned stimulus) would respond with an unconditioned response (intense fear, heart racing, short of breath, crying). When this happens, the unconditioned stimulus of them being attacked by the dog would become conditioned, and to this now conditioned stimulus, they would develop a conditioned response. If the occurrence had enough of an impact on this certain person then they would develop a fear of that dog, or in some cases, an irrational fear of all dogs. So basically, someone when I was very young vomited, and I responded with an unconditioned response that became conditioned over time. My Mom has suspected that it was possibly the time my Dad was quite ill (I was maybe 3), and I woke up to hear him vomiting in the bathroom. Perhaps the noises scared me enough to create an irrational fear of all people vomiting.

As I grew up, the phobia became quite embarassing, as I was never able to assist anyone who was sick, and I needed to avoid all situations where people might be vomiting. One example was hospitals - I always associated hospitals with vomiting. One of my best friends had a terrible allergic reaction while we were vacationing together in Florida, and we needed to take her to an emergency room. I couldn't even sit in the waiting room with her and comfort her - I had to wait outside! Public washrooms were another place I detested - the thought of someone vomiting in the stall next to me was terrifying.

Towards the end of high school, things seemed to get worse, to the point where I began worrying that I would get sick in public. The anxiety over this started when I finally got the stomach flu, and had to be sick at work one morning (I worked in a deli, so you can imagine how queasy I felt slicing up meat and cheese!!) Soon I worried that I would vomit in other public places as well - you can see why this is totally irrational, because what would cause me to believe I would vomit for no reason? I started having panic attacks, and began avoiding any place where this might occur (enclosed places were the worst - exam classrooms, buses and trains, times that I needed to perform during a concert)

Since that time, I have heard more about this type of phobia, and have even met some friends who share it. One woman I know is a professor at a respected university, and she has also struggled with this phobia for her entire life. We have shared funny stories about how much our lives have "shrunk" in size due to our need to avoid certain places and situations.

Over the years, I have managed to face my fear slowly, beginning in university when helping my fellow roomates who had had one too many at the bar. I also learned to support my family members on occasion (especially my hubby) when they were dealing with a stomach flu or recovering from surgery. When I became pregnant, I was one of the lucky ones who dealt with all-day sickness for almost 6 months. Vomiting became a regular ritual, and I adjusted to the anxiety over whether I might be sick in public - in the end I had to ask myself, who would really care if a poor pregnant woman had to vomit into a bag on the bus? The biggest question I asked myself, over and over, was "what is the worst thing that could happen?" The answer usually included things like: loss of control, embarassment, showing weakness, etc.

My biggest achievement of late was my first experience as a doula. You may or may not know, but many women vomit during labour. There are several reasons - the surge of hormones, the intensity of the contractions, and the squeezing of the uterus, which may trigger the stomach reflex to vomit. I was a little nervous about how I would handle it, but my fears were unfounded. There was a lot of vomiting, and I had no problem being right there through the whole thing.

I highlight this story and my experiences to show how long it takes to make changes. Imagine, I have had this phobia for almost 30 years, and it's only now that I can say that I may have overcome it. When we decide to change something in our lives (facing our fears, changing our behaviours) it's a long process of two steps forward, and one step back, many times over. Now, I'm not saying that all changes (like vowing to exercise more) will take 30 years to implement, but just that we need to learn to be patient with the ups and downs of life. There will be one day down the road, when we turn around and realize we've left our heavy baggage somewhere behind us...and there's no need to go back to pick it up. We have everything we need to keep going, right here and now.

This is Steven Page's "A New Shore":

As captain of this band of merry sailors I'm a black mark. I'm a failure, but before you watch me drown
I'm relinquishing command for something I don't understand. This man's about to turn his whole life upside down

I set a course for a new shore
It looked the same as the one before
And I forgot what I'd been sailing for
And why I thought this time would be different

I do most of this by feel and let go of the wheel. Constellations do the navigation on their own
Whilst yearning for adventure, dreading censure in absentia I would rather be at sea then be alone

I set a course for a new shore
It looked the same as the one before
And I forgot what I'd been sailing for
And why I thought this time would be different

Off the charts we drew
They said there wasn't anything but fairy tales
I showed them it was you, I told them you were everything a fairy tale could be

The boat sails by
The shore remains and so do I
I swear this time will be different

I settled here on a new shore
My lips were blue and my legs were sore
And I forgot if I was pushed or I jumped overboard
And after all this time, what's the difference?

Land- Ho! (Land-Ho!)


  1. Wonderful honest writing. I, too, have overcome (somewhat!!) a phobia. I avoided this like the plague for fifteen years and then one day, I thought to myself, "The only thing separating me from those who aren't afraid, are my thoughts and perceptions. That is it! Eureka!!! I still have my moments but I don't avoid anymore......
    Good for you!! It is funny as I read the beginning my first thoughts were, "Oh boy, how is she going to handle being a doula??" And you were a great doula in the moment. You should vbe very proud. You've come along way, baby!!!

  2. Wow, how awesome to find this. I am also emetephobic, have been since... Well forever. I now have three kids, and am studying to be a doula and an assistant midwife. My kids got sick this week and it has really done a job on my self confidence... You're post gives me hope,thank you.

    1. Hi Amee, it's so much more common than we think. My ability to recover from the fear has been to cultivate empathy for the person who is being sick. I am able to do this really well now with my doula clients, family and friends. However, I believe I would still react in panic if this happened to a complete stranger and I was in the vicinity. I am confident that you will get over it - exposure is key!! The more you see as a doula/midwife, the more you will become desensitized to it.


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