Anxiety Can Be Responsible for Excessive (and Random) Gagging and Increased Acid Reflux

Photo: Stocksy / VegterFoto
When it comes to anxiety, the way it manifests is different for everybody. “There is a range of physical symptoms that can appear when we’re anxious,” says Nina Vasan, MD, chief medical officer at the mental wellness platform Real. It could present as a panic attack, sweating, rapid heartbeat, nausea, or feeling jittery, for example. What you may not know is that anxiety can cause acid reflux and activate your gag reflex, too.

“Gastrointestinal symptoms are a common physical manifestation of anxiety,” says Dr. Vasan. TikTok user @alwaysanxiety is one of the many whose anxiety impacts their GI tract. In a recent video, they wrote, “I was shocked when I found out that anxiety can cause excessive gagging, increased acid reflux, a burning throat/chest, hiccups, and constant nausea.” To date, the video's garnered over 2.2 million views and more than 2,580 comments, many of which come from people who can relate.

Experts In This Article
  • Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, professor at Stanford University and founder and executive director of Stanford Brainstorm

“A gagging reflex is a defensive reaction for your body,” Dr. Vasan says. She gives the example of trying to swallow a piece of food too large for your throat being something that can trigger it. "But for some, anxiety can trigger this same defensive/protective reaction," she says. "This may be related to a past bad experience with choking or difficulty swallowing.”

How do you treat gagging and increased acid reflux due to anxiety?

First and foremost, it’s important to ensure it is the anxiety causing the issue, not another medical problem.

“You want to check in with your doctor to rule out other physical conditions first,” Dr. Vasan says. After that, it’s all about working on minimizing your anxiety. “Take a walk in nature, listen to music, and engage in something creative like drawing or coloring,” she suggests. These activities can soothe your nervous system and decrease the frequency and severity of the gagging and acid reflux, Dr. Vasan says.

She also recommends activities such as deep breathing to help regulate the body, as well as taking note of when the reflux and gagging are happening. “Keep track of what might be causing the anxiety and thus triggering the gag reflex and acid reflux,” says Dr. Vasan. “A journal or the notes function on your smartphone can be beneficial for this. This can help you to get to the root cause of your anxiety and find ways to alleviate it throughout your life.” Alternatively, or additionally, consider seeking help or guidance from a mental health professional.

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