“There’s a name for that!” This is a frequent comment under TikTok videos in which the creator is discussing their all-consuming fear of sickness. Google searches for emetophobia tripled between October 2020 and October 2021 in the UK, and the #emetophobia hashtag on TikTok has 92.1 million views at the time of writing. Is the phobia on the rise or is it just (finally) being more widely discussed? And is social media really the best place to go to talk about it?
Research into emetophobia is generally limited and opinions about the condition vary. Some studies suggest that 0.1% of the population has it; Anxiety UK has suggested the actual figure is much higher – closer to 8% – with more women affected than men. What is clear, though, is that emetophobia is more than simply disliking throwing up. It is a debilitating condition that can affect life in all aspects. “[Sufferers] feel anxious about anything where there is a risk of throwing up or seeing someone else throw up so they tend to control or avoid a lot of things in life and feel on edge most of the time,” explains Fiona Brown, a programme coach at Thrive – a private, UK-based, life-coaching platform that aims to provide support for emetophobes. “For example: not eating food they haven’t prepared themselves; avoiding food like meat, fish and dairy and only eating ‘safe foods’; avoiding drinking alcohol or being near people who drink; not going on public transport or long car journeys; feeling anxious about sending their children to school or even having children; and avoiding careers like teaching or medicine.”
Brown calls it the secret phobia. “Sufferers are often perfectionists with some social anxiety, so they feel shame and embarrassment for even having this phobia; when they tell people about it they are often met with ‘But no one likes being sick!’ and can feel belittled. This is why raising awareness and ‘normalising’ it is so important.”
TikTok has been a portal for raising awareness (and prompting self-diagnosis) of many health conditions during the pandemic, including ADHD, with self-diagnosis discussions playing out in the comments on videos about autism, trauma, narcissistic personality disorder and more – for better or worse, as self-diagnosis can sometimes be harmful. But for 20-year-old emetophobia sufferer and TikTok creator Lauren Worthy, there’s something unique about the format and algorithm that lends itself to sharing her story on TikTok. “What I love most about TikTok is that it’s short, snappy and straight to the point,” she tells R29. “It also gives creators the potential to reach new audiences in a way that other social platforms don’t. It is easy to make difficult topics, like emetophobia, easy to learn about through lighthearted and relatable audios, which can be refreshing to see.”
It was the lack of public awareness of emetophobia that made Lauren want to share her story on TikTok in the first place. “Nobody seems to know about it and for years I felt alienated and like nobody could empathise with what was going on in my head,” she explains. “I had seen people spread awareness of countless conditions on TikTok and decided to be a voice for emetophobia as it is something I’m passionate about. When I made the account I was in a very lonely place and I planned to use it as a diary, almost, so I wouldn’t have to vent directly to people in my life.”
As she had hoped, Lauren has been welcomed and comforted by her online community. “I can hand on heart say I have never felt more supported and more encouraged in recovery than I do when I look at my TikTok comment sections,” she explains. “When I made the account I imagined having a few followers, nothing more than my inner circle of friends, really.” But Lauren had an almost “out of body experience” when she watched her follower count go up by over 3,000 in the space of 48 hours, after posting about emetophobia earlier this year. Her story had resonated, finally. Today, Lauren has almost 7,000 followers and has had “crazy amounts” of messages from people just like her, who want to tell her their story or ask her questions or “simply just say thank you” for doing what she does.
Beyond offering a space of community, sharing her experiences with emetophobia on TikTok “has worked wonders for my motivation with recovery,” Lauren adds. “It’s almost like having my own little cheerleaders whenever I’m having a tough day or whenever I have a win to celebrate. The support definitely works both ways with the account and I have made some amazing friends along the way.”
Lauren is aware of the problems that can arise from being so open and vulnerable on social media. “From the day I made the account I knew that sharing something so personal online would open the door to people’s opinions and judgement,” she says. “However I believe vulnerability shows more strength than ignorance ever could and so I was willing to go ahead and face that consequence.” She does receive a “small handful” of negative comments but she feels “able to brush them off and in comparison to the support I am given, the hurtful opinions are irrelevant.”
Eden Harvey, 23, is no stranger to negativity on the internet, historically receiving hate on her content, even death threats. She shot to TikTok fame during the pandemic for her “Eat with Eden” series, in which she sits down to have dinner with her followers each day, through the screen. “When you are an influencer for mental health you have to act a certain way, and everyone expects you to be completely perfect, say everything perfect, never slip up, always be there for everybody,” she told the BBC earlier this year. “And my main issue is: I’m not a professional with mental health, I can just advise people on what I’ve experienced.”
She has used her platform of 2.7 million followers to talk about and share her experiences with emetophobia. “I knew a lot of people suffered with it, but no one knew that it had a name,” she tells R29 over the phone. “So I spoke about it subtly, [on TikTok] and then people were tagging their friends, saying: ‘Oh my god, this is what I’ve got!’ And then I’d look at the hashtag emetophobia and it was just crazy to me how many people had it.”
When she was growing up, emetophobia played into Eden having to take three months off school and also directly impacted the breakdown of a previous relationship, she explains. But it was a TikTok about a semi-defrosted chicken, of all things, that went viral. “My mum was defrosting a chicken and I went into the fridge late at night to get a drink or something [and I saw it]. I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s out of date.’ Obviously she’d frozen it, and it was just defrosting. But I took this frozen chicken and I hid it. I dug a hole in the back garden because I didn’t want my family to get ill and I was thinking of them.”
Now, Eden feels she is getting better (which she credits in part to therapy, specifically hypnotherapy) but emetophobia still affects her job as a social media creator and influencer. “You get invited to all these amazing events and then suddenly it hits you. It’s like the world’s ending,” she explains. “I have such incredible opportunities meeting people that I never could have dreamed of, and it’s like: ‘Oh, what if I projectile vomit over that celebrity that I love?’ It never happens; it would never happen. It’s such an irrational fear but it’s so valid in my brain.”
The response to Eden’s story from her community on this particular subject was “90% positive”, she says. “It’s been unreal. I’m glad that I can help people. And I’ve actually met a lot of creators who suffer with it, too, when they’ve spoken to me for advice. But obviously there are people who absolutely don’t get it. They’re like: ‘What the hell is she talking about?’ I would love to be someone like that.”
Despite the positivity and sense of embrace that comes from acceptance in online communities, which can make us feel good, Brown warns of the potential perils of relying on social media alone to cope with phobias. “From a recovery point of view, it’s important for sufferers to understand the real cause of their phobia – the real psychological drivers behind it – and not rely on the myths and hearsay from the internet.”
Tom Madders, director of campaigns for UK charity YoungMinds, agrees. “Social media can show you that you are not alone,” he acknowledges. “It can be really lonely struggling with your mental health, and finding communities of people online who are going through similar experiences can be really helpful.” Switching off is important too, though. “The online world also comes with increased pressures, as well as access to content which might be inappropriate or have a negative impact on your mental health.”
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