Accepting Difficult Emotions Part 4: Disgust

This article is part of a series on accepting difficult emotions. I hope that this series will contribute to understanding and accepting some of the more challenging aspects of the shared human experience. 



Disgust is a common experience and has many different descriptions in everyday language. People describe disgust as an icky, yucky, gross, or as a vile or revolting feeling. Lower level disgust is characterized by words such as dislike, aversion, distaste. People loathe disgusting things. When disgust is mixed with fear, it can be called the “heebie-jeebies” and can cause chills, shivers, and tingling sensations. On a physical level, disgust can lower our blood pressure, cause stomach discomfort and cause muscles in the face to tighten up in a characteristic facial expression of disgust. Disgust causes an intense urge to avoid something gross and a desire to prevent spreading the grossness to other places. 

Purpose of the emotion

Disgust by its very nature is unlikable. You could not have the feelings of disliking anything without a mild sense of disgust. Even though disgust is unlikable, it has a critical role in keeping people safe. Disgust serves the purpose of protecting us from being around things that can make us sick, like rotten food and waste products. People are disgusted by death, unfamiliar foods, animals, insects, sexual taboos, and bodily injuries that distort the body like compound fractures. You can probably think of various sports injuries, foods, and animals that personally cause you to become disgusted. What makes matters more complex is that we can also feel disgusted with things that have touched things that we find disgusting. When something that does not usually cause disgust touches something disgust-related, we say that this object or surface is contaminated. In general, all things that are contaminated can be triggers for disgust. Since something disgust-related could touch anything, a person can learn a disgust reaction to anything! Your younger brother or sister may have already taught you this by saying your spaghetti is worms! 

Related Mental Illness and How Disgust Can Become a Problem 

Disgust is a normal part of life, but it can cause enough distress and interfere with things to be a significant problem for some people. Disgust is a component of many different psychological conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias of injury/animals. 

People with fears of blood, injury, or needle sticks can experience sudden drops in blood pressure, leading to fainting related to disgust about bodily harm. People with insect, spider, snake, or animal phobias often report a feeling of disgust that is more intense than their feelings of fear. 

People diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder can worry about the cleanliness of objects and keeping themselves and their loved ones safe from illness, injury, and disease. These worries can continue even after proper cleanliness and safety measures are conducted and can cause significant stress. 

Persons suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can have intense fear reactions triggered by contamination or fears of possible contamination. People with OCD can spend hours trying to prevent the spread of real or imagined germs, chemicals, or viruses. These fears can become debilitating. 

Ways to Deal with the Emotion 

Accepting things that we dislike can lower our stress reactions to them. We may never like disgusting things like insects or intense injuries, but the more we struggle against disliking something, the more space it will take up in our minds and our lives. Unlike other difficult emotions, disgust involves very little thinking. Accepting disgust is primarily a matter of not fighting the sensations and urges to avoid that disgust creates. Until you have the experience of feeling disgusted without struggle, this may seem impossible. Still, with practice, you may be able to feel disgusted without pushing it away. 

How a Therapist May Help with Disgust 

Therapy cannot eliminate the feeling of disgust. Still, it can provide exercises that will allow you to live your life despite the presence of disgust. Disgust is often accompanied by fear, and the primary treatment for both anxiety and disgust is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy involves practice focusing on and accepting being around disgusting things and having feelings of disgust. Exposure therapy can help reduce the amount of time spent avoiding disgust and the intensity of the disgust reaction. 


By: Christopher Grandits, PhD

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