If you get queasy easily, take a deep breath before you read this.
Do you remember the scene in the movie Stand By Me in which one pie-eating contestant vomits and that triggers all the others to “lose their lunch,” so to speak?
That may have been funny to watch, but it’s not so funny when you’re the one in a room (or, worse, in a vehicle) with someone who starts in with those telltale gagging sounds.
As your neighbor gets sick and you see and smell the vomit, you start feeling nauseated and sweaty and may even join in by vomiting, too.
It’s a fact—vomiting is contagious. But there are ways to keep yourself out of it—simple things that you can do instantly, the moment you feel it coming on—according to Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in Smithtown, New York, who often helps patients deal with stressful situations.
And luckily for you readers, she had some helpful tips to share…
Why do we often get nauseated when we see someone else vomit? Dr. Serani explained that we’re wired to mirror the feelings of people around us. It’s a leftover reflex that protected us from sickness back when we were cavemen and cavewomen. The reaction was a way of having early humans purge their stomach contents if they saw someone else (who likely ate the same food) become sick. Expelling it quickly would help them recover sooner.
The same mechanism (technically called “mirror neuron system”) explains why we scratch our scalps when we hear of someone else being infected with lice, Dr. Serani continued. In fact, she said, brain scans have shown that the parts of the brain that are activated when we smell something foul or prick our finger are also activated when we watch a video of other people smelling something foul or having their fingers pricked.
Social scientists call it emotional contagion. It’s a form of empathy—but in this case, it’s related not to helping other people but to protecting ourselves.
You can, though, counteract the sensations that you feel when witnessing someone else get sick. The first and obvious step would be to remove yourself from the situation, but if you can’t physically get away, Dr. Serani recommended engaging all of your senses to redirect your mind and, in effect, override the reflex. This will put some emotional distance between you and the sick scene.
Dr. Serani often counsels patients to try the following tricks, which involve all of the five senses.
Use your nose. Going outside to inhale fresh air or opening a window would be best, but when you can’t do that, sniff the inside of your wrist or wherever you tend to spray cologne or perfume. This way, you may not smell the vomit! If you’re very prone to nausea, consider keeping a portable scent in your pocket or purse at all times—such as a little bag of cloves…a small box of potpourri…or a tiny bottle of an essential oil such as peppermint, lavender or lemon. If you don’t wear cologne or perfume or don’t want to carry anything around, at the very least, quickly place your hands over your nose and mouth and inhale whatever scent is on them, such as soap residue from the last time you washed them.
Speak up. Repeat to yourself (either aloud or silently), “I am OK. I am not going to get sick.” This may sound silly, but these types of affirmations can positively impact your state of mind.
Reach out and touch something. Get some tactile sensations going that cause a little—not a lot—of pain. For example, try pinching your arm slightly…tapping your fist onto your thigh…tugging on a few strands of hair…digging your nails gently into your arm…or biting your lower lip
Try acupressure. Pressing the inner parts of both of your wrists together may help lessen nausea.
Suck on candy or chew gum. Having a pleasant taste in your mouth might distract you. Peppermint, especially, is known to be soothing to the stomach, so it may help to keep some peppermint-flavored gum or mints in your bag at all times. (If you suffer from reflux, choose a different flavor because you may find peppermint to be irritating.)
Distract your eyes and ears. Picture yourself in a pleasant situation—perhaps you might envision yourself lying on a beach in Hawaii…or singing a song on a Broadway stage…or hitting the winning three-pointer in a basketball game. Or just look away and turn your attention to something else (besides the vomiting) that’s going on in the room—for example, focus on a painting or whatever is on TV. Or look around in your purse or briefcase for something that can grab your attention for a few minutes—for instance, play a game on your smartphone or listen to a song that you love on your portable music player.
Remember, with contagious nausea, it’s your mind that is making you feel sick…and your mind that can take that feeling away.