Phagophobia might not be a common term, but it simply means the fear of swallowing. Although it is a rare phobia, the effects can significantly impact the individual and lead to other severe health problems.
If the thought of mealtime makes you feel tightness around your neck or in your throat, you may be experiencing phagophobia. This post will show you tips on how to overcome swallowing anxiety.
What Causes the Swallowing Anxiety?
There is no exact cause of phagophobia and other swallowing disorders. However, the anxiety disorder is linked to several factors, including:
- Anxiety and tension: Swallowing anxiety or phagophobia is a rare fear or panic disorder that is actually self-fulfilling. In other words, the anxiety disorder can bring about the very thing being feared. Anxiety symptoms can make you feel the presence of a lump in your throat. This happens because your throat muscles constrict when you feel anxious and tense, causing a swallowing problem. When this happens, you are unable to physically swallow anything. Unfortunately, this can increase your fear of swallowing and create a vicious circle that’s hard to break.
- Past negative experiences with eating: A not-so-pleasant experience, such as choking, can make some people develop swallowing anxiety and muscle tension. This is particularly the case if you continuously replay the negative experience in your mind each time you think about eating. It can cause an anxiety attack that affects your throat muscles and can even lead to eating disorders. For some people, past experiences like a painful throat surgery can cause swallowing anxiety. Although the pain and severe anxiety were real experiences, it is now all in the past. But negative thoughts can make the individual re-live the pain and difficulty each time they think about eating or swallowing.
- Fear of certain types of foods: Some people with this kind of swallowing problem may be simply over-worried about specific food types or food conditions. For example, they may worry that eating certain types of foods will cause health problems, so they automatically feel tension and tightness in their throats when they think of those foods.
Tips on How to Overcome Swallowing Anxiety
The following coping strategies can help you remain calm and relax your throat muscles whenever you feel distressed or fearful about swallowing.
1. Take Small Bites
One of the practical things you want to do when learning how to overcome swallowing anxiety is to reduce the portion of the food you swallow.
Take small bites and eat slower than you normally would. This will give you enough time to swallow your food without triggering your anxiety.
2. Chew Food Thoroughly Before Swallowing
In addition to taking smaller bites, properly chewing your food before swallowing can make the whole experience less intense.
3. Eat Soft Foods
If you have swallowing anxiety, you should be picky about the type of food you eat. Of course, this may require a little experimenting to find out which foods are okay with you and which foods to avoid.
Generally, though, you want to steer clear of scratchy or hard foods. Choose soft foods that are easier to swallow.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness exercises can offer tons of benefits, such as reducing your stress and anxiety levels. Many mindfulness exercises are very easy to do and do not require special tools or equipment.
I suggest you try one or more of the following:
- Meditation: Find a quiet place to spend about 5 to 15 minutes in silence. Sit comfortably with your back straight and take slow, deep breaths. Focus on your breathing and bring your mind back to the experience of breathing if thoughts and physical sensations interrupt your exercise. This exercise makes you fully aware of the present moment and removes any fear (real or imagined) of future events. Long, slow breaths can also help with panic attacks.
- Body scan: Lie flat on your back with your legs fully extended. Keep your arms at your side and your palms facing up. Bring your awareness inward to your body and slowly focus on each part of your body from your head to your toe (or from toe to head). Become aware of how each body part feels (relaxed, tensed, or in pain) and observe the thoughts associated with each sensation. Now, breathe into any uncomfortable sensation while visualizing the pain or tension dissipating.
- Mindful walking: Walk in a quiet place where you can walk without too many distractions. Your backyard, a lonely alley, or somewhere in the woods should work fine. Walk slowly for about 20 feet, paying full attention to the experience of walking and all the sensations that come from moving your body. This brings your mind to the present moment, away from any fears and worries.
It may seem like you are merely trying to distract yourself with these exercises, but their effects go beyond temporary distraction.
For example, when you do meditation correctly and consistently, it can bring calm to your mind and body. A breathing exercise can help you quickly identify thought distortions that can lead to irrational fears, including the fear of swallowing.
5. Sip Liquids Between Bites
Taking a sip of liquid between each bite you take can help ease the swallowing process.
6. Distract Yourself
Find a way to distract yourself from the fear of swallowing. Listening to music or watching TV while eating can make chewing and swallowing a bit easier.
However, using these external distractions can rob you of the experience of mindful eating. If you would like to rely on your senses to provide a welcome distraction during eating, try this:
- Eat slowly and take small bites.
- Chew your food on purpose, paying attention to the sensations of the food in your mouth without judgment.
- Think about the texture, smell, and ingredients in the food as you eat (it might be helpful to close your eyes once in a while as you chew).
- Stop eating when you are full.
You can also find distraction by calling and speaking with someone you can trust on the phone. This is particularly helpful in helping you feel calmer at the moment.
Phagophobia is a real problem for some people. This severe anxiety disorder can lead to other serious physical health problems like dehydration, malnutrition, eating disorders, and weight loss.
Thankfully, you’ve seen how to overcome swallowing anxiety. The coping strategies I’ve listed in this post can offer immediate relief in many cases.
However, it might be best to seek professional help from a doctor or therapist if the tightness in your throat persists for a long time. Also, consider seeing an expert if the anxiety is affecting your daily functioning.