Coping WIth Phagophobia

The Fear of Swallowing

Girl eating cherries.
Blend Images/Getty Images

Phagophobia, or the fear of swallowing, is a relatively rare and quite specific phobia. It is sometimes confused with pseudodysphagia, or the fear of choking. The major difference is that those with phagophobia are afraid of the act of swallowing, while those with pseudodysphagia are afraid that swallowing will lead to choking. Both fears are sometimes confused with medical conditions such as dysphagia and odynophagia, in which a physiological disorder causes difficult or painful swallowing. But of course, folks with these conditions probably want nothing more than to be able to swallow and eat normally—phaophobics generally don't.

The Fear

Ironically, phagophobia is one of the few phobias that can actually bring about the feared condition. Anxiety and tension are often felt as a lump in the throat because anxiety actually can cause the throat muscles to constrict. Those who fear swallowing often find themselves physically unable to do so. This, in turn, can worsen the fear, creating a self-replicating cycle that is difficult to break.

Phagophobia is often, though not always, triggered by a negative experience. Perhaps you tried to eat while you were nervous about something else and found that the food did not go down easily, or you choked. Maybe you have other food fears and tried to force yourself to eat something that made you feel uncomfortable. You might have had a sore throat and experienced a scratching or painful sensation when swallowing. However, phagophobia can also occur in the absence of any identifiable triggers.

Coping With Phagophobia

Since the throat muscles often constrict during bouts of anxiety, coping strategies generally focus on remaining calm. Some people find that watching TV or listening to music while eating provides a welcome distraction that makes chewing and swallowing a less intense, singular experience. Others find that taking a sip of liquid with each bite eases the swallowing process. Others still avoid foods that they find scratchy or hard. Finding your comfort zone is often a matter of trial and error.

If your fear is more serious, professional assistance may be required. Phagophobia sometimes worsens over time, leading to gradually more restricted eating habits. This, in turn, can affect the overall health of the body: it's quite difficult to maintain a healthy diet with severe phagophobia. 

Fortunately, phagophobia responds well to a variety of treatment options. Your therapist will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan that addresses not only the phagophobia but any related disorders. With a bit of hard work, there is no reason for the fear of swallowing to take over your life.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5™ (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.