Martin* was back home from university when he came to see me with his girlfriend. A member of the rugby team, doing well in his studies, and with a couple of employers already talking to him about jobs he seemed to most people to have everything going for him. Martin though had been hiding a secret since before he took his GCSEs – he couldn’t eat in public because of an overwhelming fear that he would be sick in front of people.
It’s one of the most common phobias, but because it’s not discussed in the same way as a fear of spiders or heights, people with emetophobia can feel socially isolated. That’s why Martin had brought someone with him, because he was worried that his phobia would mark him out as “mad, or in need of really serious help”.
Martin did need help, but no more so than someone with a phobia of snakes or flying. The first step was to establish whether Martin had any digestive problems that would make him prone to being sick. He didn’t, and nor did he have a history of being sick after eating in public except when the event had made him extremely anxious. He was in the position of his anxiety about vomiting actually causing him to vomit, and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Martin worked very intensively on tackling his emetophobia. I taught him an “anchor” that triggered feelings of calm and confidence; I taught him how to pass his hand over his throat and chest and feel any nausea calming and dissipating, in a similar method to the one I teach people with IBS; he learned to imagine successfully eating in front of people and in cafes and restaurants, and to expect that as a matter of course; and he learned how to let go of his anxious thoughts and not get caught up in them.
It helped as well that Martin had a clear goal in mind – a Christmas family meal out where, in his own words, he didn’t “want to be the person everyone stares at wondering why they’re not eating anything besides toast or chips”. Martin’s now at the point he wanted to be, no longer feeling trapped or isolated by his phobia, and no longer spending time caught up in endless worries and anxieties.
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*Martin’s identity has been concealed and he is happy to share his success story.