Fear of swallowing - it's more common than you think

Phagophobia or pseudo-dysphagia is a psychological condition commonly known as fear of swallowing. Before seeking help with talking therapy, it’s very important to get a proper medical diagnosis. I usually ask my potential clients to go down this route first. There are so many issues that can cause dysphagia.


First, we have to consider what physical difficulties might cause the person problems. Throat cancer and thyroid problems affect that part of our bodies by growths, interrupting our ability to swallow or breathe.

It can be a physical brain problem. There are several areas of the brain which control swallowing. The mechanism can go wrong if there is trauma to the head - an accident, or fall for example. In one case I worked on, the client had had a stroke and it destroyed the part of the brain close to the swallowing mechanism. Knowing how brains can recover using visualisation and rehearsal, helping my client to imagine swallowing, got her to swallow again. A CAT scan of her brain revealed physical changes had occurred.

Even dementia can lead to the person struggling to swallow. The best route for this is a speech coach.

In the psychological aspect of not being able to swallow, hypnotherapy can help. Our fight and flight mechanism doesn’t want us to be digesting whilst dealing with a stressful situation. The small flap at the back of the throat separates the windpipe from the oesophagus. It makes sure we’re getting a lot of air to our lungs to run away - but no food to our bellies. We move into the rest and digest stage once the danger is over.

How can hypnotherapy help manage phagophobia?

Hypnotherapy helps the person learn to relax and not respond to the automatic fear of what might happen next. Fearing that the next meal might choke them will cause the throat to close up and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Retraining the response to stresses of all kinds will mean that the fear can go away.

It’s not just the fear of swallowing either. One client couldn’t understand why it was happening at other times. We went through a list of all the stressors in her life. She was in her early 20s, married and self-employed. They were about to buy their first house. Everything was stressful. We looked at all these areas before tackling eating and swallowing.

Remember - first fight and flight - then rest and digest. Once we rest, then we can eat.

That also goes for not being able to talk when highly stressed. Many people experience this problem along with fear of public speaking or confidence issues around talking to managers.

In preparation to run away from the experience, we tense our muscles, including internally. This is also why many of these swallow-and-talk phobias also experience irritable bowel syndrome. They often go together, not surprising considering they are the two ends of the same pipe which runs through us.

Learning to relax deeply and visualise those meetings helps. I always plan talks and meetings and rehearse them, sometimes filming them, so I can get my point across fluently.

Are you struggling with a fear of swallowing? If you feel ready to give hypnotherapy a try, contact me through my profile. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Kingston Bagpuize, Oxfordshire, OX13 5AP
Written by Penny Ling, BA DHP SFBT CBT SFBTSUP
Kingston Bagpuize, Oxfordshire, OX13 5AP

Penny Ling is an experienced solution-focused hypnotherapist specialising in fears, phobias, anxiety and confidence-related issues. Supervising hypnotherapist from different schools and locations. She is an author, was editor of Hypnotherapy Today, and has appeared on BBC radio and local TV. Penny has featured in Happiful magazine amongst others.

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