How Can You Overcome Your Fear of Swallowing?

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

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Ever get anxious when you don’t have your phone on hand? Experts call this anxiety nomophobia, short for no mobile phone phobia.

That may make you chuckle, but it’s no joke. Fears such as nomophobia can sometimes prevent a person from living their normal life. Phobias can entail almost anything – such as a fear of swallowing.

If swallowing (or just the thought of it) affects your quality of life, there’s no need to feel embarrassed. This type of somatic obsession happens, but it’s not necessarily permanent. Getting over a fear of swallowing is within your reach.

Read on as we discuss swallowing fears and how to conquer them.

What Is the Fear of Swallowing? 

Fear of swallowing is a phobia that goes by the clinical name phagophobia. It derives from the Greek phago (to eat) and phobia (fear). Quite literally, the fear of swallowing.

Don’t confuse this with pseudodysphagia, which is the fear of choking, and affects those with a fear choking after they swallow rather than the act of swallowing itself. Phagophobia is also not to be confused with certain medical conditions, such as odynophagia and dysphagia.

Phagophobia is a type of somatic obsession. That is, an unhealthy fixation on one specific part of the body and/or its function. With fear of swallowing, there is a fixation on how the muscles of the throat function.

Symptoms of Fear of Swallowing 

Many everyday activities can trigger the fear of swallowing, making it even more difficult for sufferers to take steps for recovery. If you experience the following symptoms, you may have some degree of phagophobia:

  • Anxiety before upcoming meals
  • Eating with uncommonly small mouthfuls
  • Drinking repeatedly to aid in swallowing
  • Avoiding swallowing pills
  • Extreme anxiety when thinking about swallowing
  • Panic attacks related to swallowing
  • Accelerated breathing and heart rate 
  • Excessive sweating
  • Avoiding eating around others
  • Trying to maintain an all-liquid diet

Those with phagophobia often risk their well-being by skipping out on meals, sometimes for days at a time. They may get dehydrated by drinking as little as possible. Naturally, this can lead to malnutrition and rapid weight loss.

What Causes Fear of Swallowing?

Like many psychological conditions, no one knows for sure exactly what causes phagophobia. It may result from a mix of genetic factors, health conditions, and traumatic experiences.

You may have had a bad experience with perishable food that got you sick. Or, you choked on food or had surgery on your throat. People may sometimes acquire it by seeing a relative or friend who suffers from it.

Getting Over a Fear of Swallowing

The good news about phobias is that you can reduce your symptoms or even overcome them. Let’s examine solutions for tackling phagophobia.

While some people only have mild phagophobia, where they feel only slight discomfort or anxiety around swallowing, others suffer in the extreme and are unable to eat for long periods. 

Here are some potential solutions you can try.

Eat Slower

Some people with phagophobia can better manage their symptoms by eating more slowly. They can chew their food longer, take smaller bites, and drink between bites. Eating slowly also has benefits for the body since it improves digestion.

This may help desensitize you to the swallowing sensation. Over time, you may be able to increase the speed with which you eat and use this technique as a pathway to overcoming your phobia.

Use Breathing Techniques

Mindful breathing techniques are an excellent way to control many anxiety symptoms, including the ones that arise from phagophobia. When you feel stressed out, you start to breathe faster and hyperventilate. This, in turn, makes your heart work faster, worsening the anxiety. 

If you notice an uptick in your vitals, practice breathing exercises. Breathe deeply through your nose, expanding your stomach and chest to take in a complete lungful. 

Then, exhale through your mouth and do so slowly, only as fast as you can naturally breathe. Within a few seconds or minutes of this exercise, your anxiety will being to feel more controllable. 

Pairing breathing techniques with swallowing-related activities can help reprogram your brain to cull its anxiety response.

Practice Meditation or Mindful Eating

Mindful eating has exploded in popularity in recent years. As a type of mindfulness practice, it is a ritual that takes you away from negative thoughts about the past and future, putting you instead in the present moment. 

The way you practice mindful eating is up to you. It can be a thoughtful exercise about how you got the food, how it feels to eat it, and how your body is after consuming it. Instead of fixating on the swallowing, you divert attention to the other aspects of the process. 

Visit Your Physician

As mentioned, phagophobia may have medical causes rather than psychological ones. Visit your primary doctor and discuss your symptoms. They may direct you to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat specialist) to perform tests to diagnose a deeper physical ailment.

Consider Therapy

If your symptoms persist or are extreme, it’s a good time to try phobia therapy

There are proven techniques to reduce or eliminate your phagophobia symptoms, and treatment from a psychologist specializing in phobia may involve the following:

  • Identifying your triggers
  • Suggesting lifestyle changes
  • Teaching you relaxation techniques
  • Creating a custom relaxation script
  • Reconstructing your self-talk
  • Teaching cognitive restructuring techniques
  • Teaching you how to prevent relapse

All of this will be in the care of a licensed and experienced professional. Don’t struggle and suffer alone. Put yourself in the hands of those who treat phobias on a daily basis.

Visit Advanced Behavioral Health

Fear of swallowing, or phagophobia, is an irrational fear that interrupts your ability to eat or drink. Left untreated, it can lead to weight loss and even malnutrition. 

Advanced Behavioral Health treats fear of swallowing using scientifically-proven CBT techniques. Set up an appointment with Dr. Feinstein to start your journey to recovery.

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