How to deal with a stomach bug if you're afraid of vomiting

A stomach ailment on top of a debilitating phobia can be a double whammy.
A stomach ailment on top of a debilitating phobia can be a double whammy.

A stomach bug is caused by a viral infection, spreads easily and often involves unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, vomiting diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. As nasty as it is, catching a stomach bug (often caused by the norovirus) is a common occurrence that usually passes in a couple of days.

Unfortunately, for those with severe emetophobia (a fear of vomiting or vomit) the mere thought or anticipation of a stomach bug can be petrifying to the extent that they are scared of living their life.

“But no-one likes getting sick!” people with severe emetophobia are often told. According to Psychology Today, emetophobia is common, especially among children. It involves severe anxiety connected to the anticipation of vomiting, and is associated with a fear of losing control of the body.

Many people who suffer from emetophobia are in a constant quest to avoid stomach bugs. They battle to avoid restaurants, avoid alcohol and are extremely germophobic. They often throw away food well before the expiry date and constantly panic about the health of family, friends and colleagues in case they might be sick.

But being hypervigilant will never entirely eliminate the chance of contracting a stomach bug or a foodborne illness. It tends to happen from time to time. Vomiting is a normal bodily response to rid the gut of toxins, and making peace with the possibility of it happening is the best course of action. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Tackle the phobia first

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), emetophobia, like any other phobia, is best treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure and response prevention (ERP). During these treatments, you will be giving practical coping mechanisms to deal with the fear of vomiting. Acknowledge your fear and don’t be embarrassed about it – many people suffer from emetophobia. 

Also try to figure out what exactly triggers your emetophobia, whether it’s scenes of vomiting on TV, the smells, the sound or hearing about stomach illness in your immediate area. Discuss your treatment option with your doctor or visit the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) for helpful guides and contacts. 

2. Keep medication at hand

Emetophobia can often cause actual nausea because of the body’s response to fear. Talk to your doctor about prescribing an anti-emetic, which can help prevent nausea in a panic situation and anti-anxiety medication, such as alprazolam, citalopram or lorazepam, to help you deal with the fear. Even though these don't target the stomach bug, they might help in a situation where you are sick and constantly apprehensive of vomiting.

3. Eat bland foods and drink clear liquids

As soon as you feel the onset of a stomach condition, you can ease your gut by following the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apple sauce and toast). As these will settle your stomach when you already feel rough, you can rest assure that you are in control of the illness and not allowing anything to aggravate your symptoms.

Stay hydrated and stick to clear fluids such as water, herbal tea and ginger ale. Ginger is a great natural remedy to combat nausea – strain a knob of ginger in warm water or keep ginger tea in the kitchen cupboard.

4. Practice good hygiene

When there is a particularly bad strain of the norovirus going around, the office might not be the best place to be. Gain control by washing your hands frequently and wiping your desk and shared spaces with antibacterial wipes.

Now is the time to put any therapy that you might have received in use. Apart from practical measures, bear in mind that getting sick is normal and that illnesses usually don't last that long. 

5. Keep your gut strong

The microbes in the lower intestinal tract help you to digest your food and also help to keep your immune system strong. When the gut becomes unbalanced, probiotics can help restore a healthy balance, according to the Harvard Medical School. Probiotics can help to prevent disease-causing pathogens from gaining a foothold.

You can also ingest probiotics through fermented foods such as yoghurt or fermented vegetables (pickles, kimchi or sauerkraut).

Image credit: iStock

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