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Anxiety and Choking Sensations

Wendy M Yoder, Ph.D.
Anxiety and Choking Sensations

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.

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. 

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:

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:

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.

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