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How Anxiety Causes Trouble Swallowing

One of the biggest fears that people have when they suffer from anxiety is that their anxiety symptoms are not anxiety symptoms at all. They worry that they may have a health problem that may not have been discovered yet, and that doctors have been misdiagnosing them with anxiety for years.

That's a big problem for those suffering from anxiety, because when you're worried that you have something more than anxiety, you'll find that your anxiety increases every day. You become more attuned to your body, and you start to worry more about your health, increasing your risk for anxiety attacks. This is a common problem of those that have difficulty swallowing.

Is Anxiety Making it Hard to Swallow?

There are some illnesses and diseases that make it hard to swallow. But difficulty swallowing is a common anxiety symptom, especially during anxiety attacks. What other symptoms are you experiencing? Take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your anxiety symptoms and learn more about your anxiety.

Start the test here.

GERD, Anxiety, and Other Diseases

It's important to note that trouble swallowing may be a sign of other disorders, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease. While these disorders don't cause anxiety on their own, those with anxiety often find that these disorders contribute to further anxiety.

That's why it's important that you really understand what symptoms you have that could be attributed to anxiety and how you respond to them. Take my 7 minute anxiety symptoms test to see how your anxiety score compares to others, and find treatment advice tailored to your symptoms.

Anxiety and Body Consciousness

Trouble swallowing is a frightening anxiety symptom, and one that doesn't make much sense to those that struggle with it. Why would nervousness make it hard to swallow?

Yet there are several reasons that trouble swallowing occurs, and they all relate to a common problem for those with anxiety - an over-sensitivity to their body.

Most of what your body does is automatic. You breathe without thinking about it. Your hand grasps things without thinking about each finger. And you also swallow automatically, without moving the muscles in your throat yourself.

But when you struggle with anxiety - particularly anxiety attacks - your mind focuses too much on things that used to be automatic, and forces them into your consciousness. You still have the ability to swallow, but when you swallow it no longer feels like a natural reflex, because your mind is too focused on how it feels.

Other Examples of Over-Sensitivity to Body Movements

This type of problem is common in people experiencing or close to experiencing an anxiety attack. It's not just with swallowing either:

  • You may feel that your legs or feet aren't walking correctly.
  • You may feel as though your tongue has grown or isn't fitting in your mouth right.
  • You may feel that your fingers are tingling and can't grasp items correctly.

Swallowing is simply another example of this. The motions and the sensations become less automatic. You're unlikely to choke (although choking can occur in rare cases), but your body is so overwhelmed with anxiety that what has always been an automatic response for your body becomes a less automatic one, causing swallowing problems.

Sometimes You're Not Having Trouble

Similarly, when you have anxiety, you may not have trouble swallowing at all. You may simply not need to swallow but feel you need to swallow and be more aware when you're unable to get your muscles to work properly. Something has to trigger the swallowing reflex. If you feel that you need to swallow when you don't, and you try to swallow, you may simply be unable to despite nothing being wrong.

Yet when you have anxiety, it can feel as though something is wrong. To those with anxiety, the difference between being unable to swallow and simply not swallowing is very slim, and the fear that develops very real. Also, don't forget that your body is very tense when you're suffering from anxiety, and this may cause problems with the swallowing reflex as well.

How to Reduce the Anxiety From Swallowing Difficulty

If you find that you're having trouble swallowing, the first thing to do is take a slow breath. Remember, you can't choke on something that you've swallowed. By taking a slow breath (assuming the food has been swallowed but is simply not going down), you'll make sure that your mind and body realize that you're not choking on the food, it's just taking its time going down your throat.

See if you can swallow a bit of water as well. Water is tends to be easier to swallow than other foods and liquids. As long as you can swallow water, you'll be able to remind yourself that your swallowing reflex does work - you're simply overthinking the problem.

Also, distractions are very important. During periods of intense anxiety, you need to stop focusing so much on the sensations you're experiencing. You can't necessarily stop your panic attack once it's started, but you can try to head it off by distracting yourself so that you're not focusing so much on the swallowing reflex. You can try:

  • Immersing Yourself in Technology Normally, technology is not the best thing for living with anxiety. But if you're feeling high anxiety, turning the TV on, playing some music - these activities should take you out of your mind and focused on something else, which will hopefully cause your anxiety attack to become less overwhelming.
  • Call Someone Phone calls are a great distraction. Not only are you talking to someone you trust - you're also placing something to your ear and trying to hold a conversation, both of which are activities that make it less likely you'll be able to focus entirely on your anxiety.
  • Breathe Slower Breathing plays a significant role in panic attacks. When you have an anxiety attack, you tend to breathe in a way that takes in too much oxygen, often breathing too quickly or in a way that isn't ideal for your body. Slow down your breathing as best you can, and hold your breath a bit to regain your CO2 levels and prevent hyperventilation symptoms.

These strategies can decrease the severity of your panic attack, and if your anxiety attack is weaker then you reduce the likelihood of feeling like you have trouble swallowing.

Long Term Anxiety Reduction

Difficulty swallowing is a symptom of suffering from anxiety, so on its own it is difficult to stop without some type of intervention. You'll need to find a way to stop experiencing panic attack and anxiety symptoms overall if you want to swallow more easily, and that means that you'll need to control your anxiety in a way that won't allow it to come back.

First, always visit the doctor. While trouble swallowing is very often an anxiety symptom, you'll want to be sure that you're not suffering from acid reflux or any of the other disorders that can contribute to the issue. Those types of disorders can be treated separately, and knowing that you do or don't have them is an important part of controlling anxiety.

You'll then need to commit to an effective anxiety reduction platform. One based on your anxiety symptoms so that you will be able to experience less overall anxiety.

I've helped thousands of people that have trouble swallowing from anxiety, but I have to start them all off with my free anxiety test. The test is designed to get an idea of your anxiety and how it affects you so that you can effectively control it.

Click here to start.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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