Health 'I Have A Severe Phobia—Here's What It's Like'
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As soon as we sat down to dinner, I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. My friends and I were grabbing a bite before heading to a Stone Temple Pilots concert. I ordered a steak salad (with a side of beer to calm my nerves). The restaurant was loud, my friends were louder. The nausea grew, but I kept eating, kept talking, kept acting like I was fine. I wasn't fine.
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My stomach felt like it was in a vice. My throat went dry. I started to sweat and I struggled to catch my breath. I quickly headed to the bathroom, where I locked myself in a stall. Deep breaths, deep breaths. As soon as I could bear it, I rushed back to the table, where my friends were picking up the check. Finally, dinner was over. I'd made it.
For those of us with deipnophobia—a fear of dining and dinner conversations—literally anything is more pleasant than a meal with friends.
Watch a doctor explain whether your anxiety is serious:
My First Symptoms
Deipnophobia typically manifests in one of two ways: as a type of social anxiety or as a specific phobia, according to the. “If the situation (in this case, dining with others) is feared because of negative evaluation by others, it would be considered a social anxiety disorder,” says Cecelia Mylett, Psy.D., clinical director of , a mental health and substance use disorder treatment center in West Hollywood. “Otherwise, deipnophobia would be considered a specific phobia—a significant fear of a certain object or situation.”
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Don't let anxieties control your ability to enjoy delicious eats. Taste of Home has a simple solution.The term is brumotactillophobia, and it's a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The fear begins with your taste buds—the need to taste food separately is a pretty standard gut response. However, when a person with brumotactillophobia begins to worry about foods touching each other, this fixation becomes the focal point of the meal. Over time, the mind makes a habit out of preemptively worrying before food has even hit the plate.
Although I didn't have a name for it until I was in my thirties, my deipnophobia began as a specific phobia: an intense fear of post-meal nausea and cramps.
There wasn’t one particular—or traumatizing—event that triggered me to avoid the dinner table; rather, there were smaller moments of discomfort that chipped away at my resilience over time, eventually morphing intodisorder.
Growing up, my parents worked long hours, so when we ate together, it was usually in a restaurant setting. (Ironically, the majority of my fondest childhood memories are set in restaurants.)
But when I was about 10 years old, following a string of health scares in my family, anxiety went from making the occasional cameo in my life to being a series regular. And it started to impact how I felt during and after eating.
I vividly remember driving home from dinner one night with my family, and feeling so queasy that I curled up in the fetal position. It wasn’t long before I asked my dad to open the window, just in case. As I waited for the nausea to subside, I shut my eyes and focused solely on the ‘90s country tunes playing on the radio, repeating all of the song lyrics in my head to distract myself.
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Another night, I ate dinner at a friend’s house, and felt so nauseous that I pretended I had to go home earlier than I really did.
These first episodes of post-meal nausea happened months apart from each other, so my parents and I assumed they were nothing more than bad cases of indigestion.
But then it started happening from time to time at school, too. When I was in the sixth grade, we listened to the O.J. Simpson verdict on the radio as it came in during lunch—only, I was so busy repeating, “Do not barf, do not barf,” and kicking my legs back and forth under the table that I didn't hear it.
My anxiety began to manifest in more overt physical symptoms, too. During our eighth grade trip to Ottawa, I watched my friends and classmates hoover an array of heavy breakfast foods like it was nothing, while half a granola bar sent me running to the throne. Just the thought of food made me feel queasy—and when I ate, it shot through me so fast I would've needed to camp out in the bathroom stall to finish a meal.
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Yet, once we returned to the dorms, where it was quieter and I was around fewer classmates at once, I had no problem snacking in our rooms or in the common areas.Credit Link:
Hiding In Plain Sight
I tried not to let these feelings of terror hold me back. All through high school, I was like the little engine that could—I sat at the damn table and ate during family get-togethers and hangouts with friends, hoping that one day, I could love eating and socializing the way other people do.
I felt like I was putting on a show, tricking others into believing that sitting at that table wasn’t a big deal for me, while secretly hoping that, this time, it wouldn’t be. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time, not so much.
I’m not sure how much of what I went through was visible on the surface or translated into behaviors that others found odd. I was never approached by anyone, and I don’t recall doing anything that would’ve created suspicion. I also don’t recall saying a word about my aversion to anyone.
While I never had one specific Full House-style heart-to-heart with my parents about my phobia, at around 17, my parents supported me in my decision to go to the doctor for help with my anxiety.
Admittedly, it didn’t go very well. I’d barely finished sharing two sentences about my anxiety and other symptoms before my doctor’s prescription pad was out. The first prescription made my nausea and stomach pains worse, the next one we tried made me depressed, and the third did slow down my finicky digestive tract in addition to my anxiety—but it slowed down everything else too. I was foggy, couldn’t focus at school, and all I wanted to do was sleep.
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Since the trial and error left me feeling worse than when I started, I stopped going to the doctor and continued ignoring my issue.Credit Link:
Dealing With Full-Blown Anxiety
Little moments started to pile up that made eating with or around others even more of a grind—a waitress assuming I didn’t like my order because of how little I ate, a friend commenting on the tiny portions on my plate. And because I’ve always been on the scrawnier side, I was the butt of more eating disorder jokes than I care to dwell on.
Because of these moments (and plenty of others), I wasn’t just afraid of symptom attacks anymore: People with deipnophobia can become intensely afraid of being humiliated or embarrassed at the dinner table, says New Jersey-based clinical psychologist, Psy.D., whether it’s by exhibiting symptoms of anxiety or being shamed for their eating habits. I was now worried about what other people would think if I needed to leave the table to get fresh air, or lock myself in a bathroom stall to breathe my way through an anxiety attack, or take three hours to eat my dinner if necessary.
It became (slightly) easier to mask my phobia in my twenties, because. But the constant anxiety eventually took its toll. By my late twenties, socializing of any kind—even walking past someone in the hallway of my building—put my body into a state of high-alert. Anxious was now my status quo, to the point where I never had an appetite.
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I was so desperate for relief from my symptoms (and to eat meals that didn’t involve curling up in the fetal position afterward) that I gradually scaled back on socializing. I told myself this was only temporary—I just needed some R&R, some time to focus on nourishing my body, some time to remind myself that I’m the boss, not my phobia.
Of course, that’s what my phobia wanted me to think.
Hitting My Breaking Point
The snapshots accompanying this article? They were taken during the summer of 2011—the weekend my deipnophobia finally broke me.
My sister came to visit, and I tried to create as casual a dining atmosphere for myself as possible—I set up my dining table by the patio door so there was fresh air and a peaceful view to enjoy, put some music on in the background to distract myself if an anxiety wave hit, and, well, stocked up on wine and beer.
We ordered takeout. We ate. We talked. We drank. I got through the entire dinner without having to leave the table, and promised myself I’d celebrate with a Carlton dance later.
But near the end of the dinner, I started to feel queasy and uncomfortable, like my body was trying to digest a brick. I tried to ignore it as we moved to the living room to watch a movie, but it wasn’t long before I went into the bathroom—and didn’t come out until the next morning. (Let’s just say that everything was coming out everywhere.)
That was the day I became the little engine that couldn’t. Every meal with others from that point on became unbearable to sit through. It felt like I didn’t have control over my own body anymore.
For the next few years, I straight-up stopped trying to eat with others, including my parents.Credit Link:
Giving Up The Fight
It wasn’t until my early thirties that I stopped using excuses and finally fessed up about my feelings—to myself, and eventually, to my family and friends.
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My lightbulb moment: I was watching a Hallmark movie where two characters were eating dinner at a fancy restaurant, and I started to panic like I was the one sitting at the table! “This is bullsh*t,” I said to myself. Out loud. And that was that.
My parents were aware of my anxiety growing up, but not the dining-related fears I’d been experiencing. Because I didn’t struggle with eating at home or out when it was just the three of us, the digestive drama they did witness over the years seemed like one-off events with no obvious connection.
As I poured my heart out to my mom, the craziest thing happened: She confessed that she has deipnophobia, too! (How neither of us noticed each other’s struggles this entire time is beyond us.) We swapped war stories for hours. Knowing we couldn’t be the only ones who felt this way, that night we Googled it, and finally put a name to our phobia. I let out a sigh of relief that I’d been holding in practically my entire life..
Dealing With My Phobia
Much like how this phobia took shape, untangling myself from it has been a slow burn. There were initial feelings of shame and embarrassment for letting it go on for as long as I did (and residual blushing as I wrote this essay), but that’s how phobias roll—they’re persuasive, deceptive, and play the long game, subtly dismantling your life until one day, something as simple as a dinner invite turns you into a puddle of stress sweat.
“As with most phobias, avoidance is not the best solution,” says Kress. “In fact, avoidance typically reinforces the fear associated with a phobia.” But going into dining situations without some preparation and support isn’t going to set you up to succeed, either. “A well-balanced approach involves slowly building up your tolerance for the situation until you eventually feel less anxious and more at ease dining with others,” she says.
I still have a long way to go in dealing with my deipnophobia—but I'm proud of the slow-and-steady progress I’ve been making.
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