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How to Deal With Anxiety and Heartburn

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

How to Deal With Anxiety and Heartburn

Many of the symptoms of anxiety cause further anxiety. The cyclical nature of anxiety is one of the reasons that this disorder can be hard to treat without some type of outside intervention. You experience anxiety, then you experience very frightening symptoms, and then you experience more anxiety over those symptoms.

This is the case with anxiety and heartburn. Heartburn, also known as acid reflux, can cause numerous symptoms that may lead to significant anxiety, especially if you are prone to health anxiety or panic attacks.

Heartburn and Anxiety

The relationship between anxiety and heartburn is not an obvious one. Not everyone experiences heartburn when they're stressed, and others may be experiencing symptoms of mild hyperventilation which can mimic heartburn symptoms (such as chest pain) and are very common with anxiety.

It's not always as simple as saying "anxiety causes heartburn." There are several potential causes of heartburn from anxiety:

  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) Many of those that suffer from heartburn when they have anxiety also have GERD, otherwise known as "acid reflux disease." Many people live with mild GERD, and one of the factors that causes an increase in GERD symptoms is anxiety. GERD is generally a non-dangerous disease, although the symptoms of GERD may be triggers for panic attacks.
  • Stomach Pressure One of the issues that causes heartburn/acid reflux is pressure around the muscles of the stomach. This is linked to the fact that a common symptom of anxiety is muscle tension. Therefore, it's easy to see how anxiety can potentially push acid up in the stomach and cause the symptoms of heartburn.
  • Excess Stomach Acid It appears that stress increases stomach acid buildup. For many, this can cause issues not only with heartburn, but also appetite. Despite the increase in stomach acid, it's not terribly common for those symptoms to cause heartburn (they often cause indigestion and stomach discomfort, however). Nonetheless, this does happen in some people.
  • Changes in Digestion Stress is known to affect the digestive process both in the intestines and in the stomach. It's possible that anxiety is causing your body to digest food poorly, leading to acid buildup in the stomach that moves up the esophagus. Anxiety may also slow down digestion, leading to similar issues with food moving down the esophagus.

Stress can also affect your hormones and your body's efficiency. Thus, many people with anxiety may have a lower esophageal sphincter (the sphincter that controls acid reflux) that works improperly as a result of anxiety.

Is Anxiety Heartburn Dangerous?

Heartburn, in general, is not dangerous per se. However, there are some risks. For example, both stress and heartburn can lead to ulcers, and ulcers can be dangerous. GERD has a very low chance of causing long term disease. The problem is not just the danger, however. The problem is that the symptoms of heartburn often lead to further anxiety.

This is especially problematic if you have panic attacks. Some of the symptoms of heartburn include:

  • Stomach discomfort.
  • Chest pain.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Chronic cough.

The first three symptoms are known to be triggers for panic attacks. The last symptom can cause hyperventilation if the coughs are too frequent or too hard, and hyperventilation can lead to panic attacks.

Treatment Options for Heartburn From Anxiety

Traditional heartburn treatments only have a moderate effect on anxiety heartburn. Eating smaller meals, taking antacids, and eating foods that do not contribute to heartburn are a good place to start. But they're only going to do half the job, as many people that experience heartburn from anxiety fail to get complete relief when they utilize these treatments alone.

Some of those with anxiety claim to get relief from jogging and other forms of exercise. However, it should be noted that in general, exercise actually makes acid reflux temporarily worse. In the long term, though, it helps a lot with heartburn. While these options may prove helpful, there is one thing that should be considered first by people looking to get rid of their heartburn anxiety: address the root of the problem by treating your underlying anxiety!

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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