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How Anxiety Causes Esophagus Problems

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

How Anxiety Causes Esophagus Problems

Anxiety affects quite literally every part of your body. One of the areas it affects is the esophagus. Anxiety leads to many esophagus problems that are both real and perceived, and when it causes these symptoms it can sometimes lead to other symptoms and fears that create more anxiety.

The Problems in the Esophagus

Your esophagus is the area of your body that transports food from your mouth to your stomach. It's filled with little muscles, and extremely sensitive to change.

While anxiety and stress really can lead to very distinct esophagus issues, what's interesting is that not all of the esophagus problems are physical. Some of them are perceptions based on the way that your brain translates information.

The best way to understand is to break the problems down into "real" and "perceived."

Real Esophagus Problems

By "real," we're talking about actual changes that can occur inside of the esophagus as a result of anxiety. The biggest is acid reflux. Anxiety doesn't actually create acid reflux, but what it does do is appear to exacerbate acid reflux symptoms. If you already had mild or moderate gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD, also known as simply "acid reflux"), anxiety appears to increase the amount of stomach acids in your body and thus increase your risk for more severe GERD symptoms.

This is a problem not only because acid reflux is a symptomatic disorder, but also because some people - especially those with panic attacks - may find that their anxiety is triggered more often as a result of this increase in GERD symptoms. GERD can cause chest pain, rapid heartbeat, and other symptoms that often trigger more anxiety.

Another problem, although this is currently being disputed, is that esophageal ulcers may also be the result of anxiety. Recently there has been some evidence that this is not the case, and that it is a combination of other, unrelated factors (it may actually be bacteria), but the risk may still be there.

Perceived Esophagus Problems

What is interesting however is that the biggest issues with esophageal problems aren't actual changes to the health of your esophagus; rather, they are perceived problems with the esophagus as a result of anxiety.

Anxiety causes two issues that lead to a perception of esophagus problems:

  • Hypersensitivity The biggest issue is hypersensitivity. When you suffer from anxiety, your mind becomes more likely to notice every single negative feeling inside of your body. As a result, it occasionally feels things that you never would have felt without anxiety. For example, when food travels down your esophagus, your mind may actually feel the food there - almost like it's stuck there. Nothing has technically changed in your health, but you notice the discomfort more than you ever would before.
  • Hyperawareness Another problem comes from making what are otherwise normal movements conscious. Have you ever noticed that when you think about your breathing you have to breathe manually, almost like your body gives you manual control of something that it usually does on its own? With anxiety, that can happen to all of your muscles, and some people find that they start to have trouble swallowing or difficulty moving food down. That may be the result of your mind giving you too much conscious control on what were otherwise automatic movements.

Neither of these are dangerous, because neither of these are actual changes to your health. They are simply your body misinterpreting things that are happening, and causing you to feel poorly as a result.

Addressing Esophageal Problems

Because GERD and other issues do exist, seeing a doctor is always a good idea. There is never any risk to getting your health checked out, and it is not possible to self-diagnose esophagus issues.

But once health problems have been ruled out, you will want to strongly consider taking action to address your anxiety. Only by combatting your anxiety can you hope to reduce this sensitivity, increase in acid reflux, and so on.

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

– Anonymous patient


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.

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