Those struggling with anxiety often have one fear in the back of their mind that won't go away. One fear that makes it hard for them to manage their anxiety or feel fully calm and content even when they're able to control their anxiety attacks. That fear is that their anxiety is really hiding something more serious. They fear that the doctors may be wrong, and that there is a hidden danger inside of their body right now that is causing them to feel these physical symptoms.
Nowhere is that fear more apparent than when someone with anxiety feelings like they're choking. Choking sensations are a very real problem for those dealing with anxiety - especially anxiety attacks - and can contribute to this feeling like danger is present at any moment.
Is Your Choking From Anxiety?
There is no denying that some illnesses do cause choking sensations, and if you're concerned you should talk to a doctor. But choking sensations can be caused by anxiety, especially severe anxiety. Take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your anxiety severity and see if your symptoms can help you fnd a treatment.
Choking Sensations and Disease or Illness
There are absolutely some health issues that can cause you to feel like you're choking. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is one of the most common, often leading to significant discomfort and similar symptoms to some anxiety disorders.
But health is not often the cause of choking sensations. Often the real problem is anxiety, especially if you're prone to other common anxiety symptoms. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to see what your symptoms say about your anxiety.
What Causes the Choking Sensation?
Choking is one of the stranger anxiety symptoms, and there is little medical reason to recognize why this choking occurs. Hyperventilation does not appear to cause choking. Anxiety itself doesn't seem to cause it either. There is nothing wrong with the throat during an anxiety attack. In terms of physical causes, it is a bit of a mystery.
But there is no denying the link between choking sensations and anxiety. It's a problem that has affected millions of anxiety sufferers for decades, and continues to be one of the more stressful and disruptive symptoms of an anxiety disorder. While there is no physical change that causes this choking feeling, there are many reasons that this "choking" sensation may occur:
- Hyper-sensitivity The most likely explanation for the choking sensation is hyper-sensitivity, which is a very common problem for those that suffer from anxiety attacks. Hyper-sensitivity is when you become too sensitive to the way your body feels, so that you start to notice physical sensations that someone without anxiety wouldn't pay any attention to. When you swallow anything, there is going to be a very small physical sensation of the food or drink going down your throat. Without anxiety, you wouldn't even notice, but with anxiety you can't help but notice and feel as though something is wrong with your ability to swallow.
- Conscious Instinct Swallowing is also an instinct. Your muscles push food and water down automatically when it is time to swallow. You're swallowing all throughout the day without even realizing it, and when you drink or eat and decide to swallow your muscles do it automatically. When you have anxiety though, more of your body becomes conscious. Your automatic reflexes become less automatic. You try to force the swallowing reflex, and because the reflex itself is not automatic, it doesn't feel like it works. That can make it feel like you're about to choke, or cause you to not swallow as cleanly as you would normally.
- Nothing to Swallow Extreme anxiety can cause you to feel like you need to swallow, even when you don't. When you try to force swallowing when there is nothing to swallow, especially when combined with swallowing becoming more conscious, it can occasionally feel as though your swallowing reflex isn't working and causing you to choke.
- Mild Choking Reaction Have you ever taken a pill from the doctor and felt like it didn't go all the way down your throat? That experience can feel like you're choking or about to choke, when it reality it's harmless. Those with anxiety may experience excess saliva, or (as mentioned above) they may simply not be able to swallow as automatically because they're paying too much attention to the way their throat feels, causing their swallowing reflex to be more conscious. When these occur, food feels like you're about to choke on it, but it has already passed into the swallowing tube and is simply caught up slightly, causing this choking feeling.
- Psychosomatic Sensations Finally, it's possible that something about anxiety simply causes your throat to feel like there is something inside it, which can make it feel like you are or are about to gag or choke. Generally nothing is actually present and medically there shouldn't be anything causing this sensation, but during periods of intense anxiety when the body is filled with stress, strange sensations are possible.
Obviously choking can be dangerous. But when you simply have a choking sensation caused by anxiety, it is almost entirely harmless. It's always a good idea to stop trying to swallow food if you're in the middle of an anxiety attack (to ensure that your fast breathing doesn't cause you to breathe in too quickly and actually choke), but if it's simply a sensation that in almost every case it's entirely meaningless and not at all dangerous.
The Feeling That Something is Wrong
It's important to remember that one of the main symptoms of a panic attack - something that affects millions of Americans and millions more around the globe - is a feeling of doom, as though something is terribly wrong. So during a panic attack, you may start to worry about your ability to swallow the moment you start panicking, and if you have any difficulty at all that difficulty will translate into fear that you are about to choke. All of those reactions are natural, and are simply the result of your anxiety disorder.
How to Decrease The Choking Sensation
Trouble swallowing is an issue that is a bit hard to stop in the moment, because for swallowing to go back to normal you need to think less about the action. It needs to become an automatic process again, and unfortunately trying to "cure" the choking feeling is only going to make you think about the action more.
You can help by simply breathing. Remember, if you were actually choking, breathing would be impossible. You simply cannot breathe if something is caught in your throat, so the act of breathing should prove to your mind that you're not choking and make it a bit easier to relax. Don't concern yourself too much if you find yourself having trouble swallowing. That's natural when you're paying this much attention to your throat sensations.
If you can drink small gulps of water, that can help as well. If something were caught in your throat, you wouldn't be able to drink any water. If something is caught in your esophagus, water will push it down. If you still feel the choking sensation, that should be a clear indicator that nothing is really in your throat.
You should also try distracting yourself. Distractions are the key to your brain regaining control over your swallowing mechanism. The less you think about swallowing, the more your body will start swallowing as normal. Anything can be a distraction:
- Watching TV
- Calling a Friend
It's not possible to tell yourself not to think about something. In order to do that, you'd have to keep reminding yourself what not to think about, and you'll think about it more. But you can distract yourself so that you don't have an opportunity to think about swallowing as much, because you're paying too much attention to other things. Give yourself a healthy distraction to take your mind off of your swallowing reflex and the choking sensations should return to normal.
Still, these are only temporary. If you have anxiety attacks, you'll still experience choking sensations as a result. You need to learn how to stop your panic and anxiety attacks if you want to stop this feeling of choking.
You should always start by seeing a doctor at least once. Even though anxiety is likely to be the cause of your choking sensation, a doctor's visit can control some of your anxiety before you start the treatment process. However, make sure that you're going to start a treatment. Going to the doctor is not enough, and if your anxiety gets out of control, you'll find ways to convince yourself the doctor is wrong.
Next, take my free 7 minute anxiety test. It'll take your symptoms and provide you with a recommended treatment options that is effective for curing anxiety.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.