One of the most common sensations while feeling nervous or experiencing a panic attack is difficulty swallowing. It might feel like a lump in your throat, or a tightness that makes swallowing uncomfortable. For many, it feels like they're choking or they can't breathe.
Although it is common, some people may be wondering what that sensation is and why it happens. We’re going to discuss what that lump in your throat is, what causes it, and how to get rid of it.
What is That “Choking” Feeling When I’m Anxious?
When we experience anxiety, our bodies can react in several ways. Our stomachs may churn, and we may start feeling light-headed and unable to sit still. Others might experience a high heart rate, difficulty swallowing food, and tense muscles.
People describe globus sensations in several ways. It could be the feeling that there’s a lump in your throat, that there’s something stuck in your throat, or that your throat is tightening. It’s generally a painless sensation that is typical for those feeling nervous.
Dysphagia is difficulty swallowing. For people experiencing dysphagia, it takes more effort to move food or saliva down the esophagus. People often describe it as feeling like their throat is closed or that something is in it.
Anxiety and dysphagia can go hand and hand. If there’s no physical explanation for the sensation, it’s often attributed to an anxiety disorder, phobia, or somatic symptom disorder.
What Causes it?
There are multiple causes for globus sensation and dysphagia including acid reflux and heartburn. However, when people feel anxious they can experience these sensations as well.
Fight or Flight
When anxiety becomes present our fight or flight reflexes kick in. When that occurs our body tries to prepare itself by creating muscle tension. This is helpful in situations that require us to flee a situation or fight a threat. However, it’s not helpful when there are no dangers present.
This tension occurs over our whole body—including our throat muscles. Anxiety can create dysphagia and globus sensations because of this tension.
When adrenaline is rushing through our bodies, we become more keen to our senses. We become aware of regular body functions we normally don't notice. Heartbeats may seem louder, and arms may feel heavier.
This often includes increased awareness of the subtle muscle flexions in the throat. We don’t typically think about our swallowing reflexes. When we’re made aware of those things, it can be discomforting and feel like a lump.
Anxious Thoughts About Choking
Phagophobia is a very real phobia that describes the fear of swallowing. Fear of swallowing or choking can also play a major role in globus sensation and dysphagia.
People experiencing these symptoms used to be treated with traditional medication. However, medical professionals are noticing the role that anxiety can play in them. Now, It’s becoming more standard for those experiencing these conditions to seek treatment for anxiety.
Treating Globus Sensation and Dysphagia
Experiencing these symptoms can be scary. Trouble swallowing doesn’t play into other anxious feelings well, and can exacerbate them. However, there are some exercises you can do to relax throat muscles during anxiety.
Breathing exercises are known to calm people experiencing stress and anxiety. If you’re able, take some time to take slow, deep breaths through your nose and release through your mouth.
Some people use box breathing as a calming exercise. This exercise involves breathing through your nose, holding, then breathing out your mouth every 4 counts. Deep breathing exercises have also been shown to decrease heart rate and produce muscle relaxation.
Eat or Drink
It might seem counterintuitive to eat or drink while feeling a lump in your throat. However, research shows that symptoms can improve through eating or drinking.
Dry swallowing can increase discomfort. Swallowing smaller sips of water helps relax tight throat muscles.
How to Overcome Difficulty Swallowing with Anxiety
When the lump in your throat is persistent and you’re unable to properly clear your throat, there may be underlying mental health disorders to be addressed.
Seeking treatment for anxiety disorder may help manage these symptoms. Anxiety treatments typically involve a mixture of talk therapy and medication.