It is normal to check your chicken during cooking to make sure it has cooked through. No one wants salmonella right? The problem occurs where you check your chicken again, and again, and again. Then, even when the chicken is cooked, obsessing over whether it is truly cooked while eating it. Here comes the anxiety, the paranoia, to the point where you eat less, or just stop eating altogether. This isn’t just exclusive to food, because you can get sick anywhere, the stomach bug is one hug away! The truth is you can be hygienic, you can eat carefully, but you will never 100% avoid getting ill. Nobody will tell you getting ill is nice, but it is important to focus on how you cope when you do get ill, that helps you fight the fear of getting sick.
The Fear of Getting Sick
We have all been there, huddled around a toilet, praying for the bug to kill us quickly. For some people, that idea, the notion of throwing up, getting sick, can be incapacitating. The official name for it is Emetophobia, which means the ‘fear of vomiting'(Anxiety UK, 2018). I don’t necessarily believe I have a fear of vomiting, personally, I fear the overall notion of becoming ill. I am especially triggered by food and everything that comes with getting food poisoning.
I have talked about the effects of my food anxiety in my very first post, but since going to CBT, and noticing some maladaptive short-term behaviours, I wanted to write a post about my fight with the fear of getting sick/triggering my IBS.
I’m not going to lie, it’s not cured, and even to get to this point was really hard. There is no quick fix, but the relief I felt when I let go of one of my unhelpful behaviours was better than any short-term relief I had been doing up till then.
The first point that was promoted in CBT was this idea of Behavioural Experiments (Veale, 2009). These actively test out unhelpful thoughts by challenging maladaptive behaviours. You enter a nausea-inducing environment but you leave your safety-seeking behaviours at the door, which is terrifying, but effective. (CBT has been found to be specifically effective for individuals with a specific phobia of vomiting (Walker et al., 2016).)
Let’s Get Personal
I’ll give you an example. When I go to work, I always go to the bathroom before to check that I am not ill. Whether that is seeing if I need to throw up or suddenly go to the bathroom, even though I didn’t before. This makes me feel better because I am double-checking that I am okay, and can go into work confident. However, this is excessive checking. It leaves the idea that if I were to not check, I would be ill at work, that would be embarrassing, and I couldn’t cope.
To do the behavioural experiment, I had to go to work without checking beforehand. (Bare in mind I had to write out the experiment, and it was worked through with a professional) Unsurprisingly, I got nauseous, I went into panic mode. But as soon as I started work, and my mind was focused on other things, it went away, and nothing happened. That relief when I stepped out of work and realised I had survived was fucking awesome. I challenged a thought, and I made it out alive.
Here’s the crucial point of these experiments though. You cannot say it will never happen. I could have gone into work, and actually been ill. I could not bring my hand sanitizer in one day and catch the stomach bug. This doesn’t mean that it was your safety behaviour protecting you though. In fact, those with no fear of vomiting throw up the same amount of times as those with safety seeking behaviours, so how helpful can they be? It is how you cope without you safety behaviours, in the event you do get ill, that is important.
Yes, you will be ill, it will not be pleasant. But was it as horrible as you imagined? Were you able to cope? Did you come out the other side? Getting sick sucks, and you cannot control it. You can control how you cope. You call in sick, you drink water, you accept that this is your life for the next couple of days, and know it will not last forever. Because no one has ever had the stomach bug for the rest of their life. Even an IBS flare-up will go away.
This is easier said than done, as almost everything is. The risk of getting ill feels so high, even I didn’t want to test out the idea of letting someone who had food poisoning touch me. But that is the only way I am going to be able to break the vicious cycle I am in, you break the behaviour and the whole cycle crumbles.
That’s how I am fitting my fear of getting sick, it is exhausting, but I highly recommend CBT and CBT-like techniques to anyone going through a similar thing. A little disclaimer – this is a fairly personal post, with a few evidenced-based research, but always do your own before taking advice on treatments.
Fighting to be less,
Anxious and Hungry
Emetophobia. (Anxiety UK). Retrieved October 17, 2018, from https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/anxiety-type/emetophobia/
Veale, D., (2009), Cognitive behaviour therapy for a specific phobia of vomiting. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist. Vol. 2, 272-288
Walker, L., Veale, D., Chapman, C., Ogle, F., Rosko, D., Najmi, S., et al., (2016). Cognitive behaviour therapy for specific phobia of vomiting (Emetophobia): A pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 43, 14-22.