A Surprising Symptom of Anxiety

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Despite the large number of people who experience anxiety-induced gagging, there is little research on the subject other than gagging in response to dental fears. For many, however, gagging when nervous or anxious can be debilitating. The feeling of gagging or even dry heaves can come on suddenly, with no warning. For some, it interferes with daily life. They are afraid to work, attend social functions, or even be in public because they worry that they will start to gag.

The gag reflex, also called pharyngeal reflex, is an automatic reaction that can be triggered by physiological reasons, such as something touching certain areas of your mouth, or psychological reasons, such as when you smell something rotten. Although it isn’t understood why anxiety triggers the gag reflex, the American Psychological Association indicates that anxiety stimulates the nervous system, which triggers physical reactions to the stress. These reactions might include the gag reflex.

The following tips can help you manage your gagging reflex:

1. Medical and alternative health treatments for anxiety

If you are already receiving treatment, talk to your doctor about your hypersensitive gag reflex and ask for suggestions on how to reduce the feeling. Review your current treatment plan with your doctor so together you can decide if it should be adjusted. If you aren’t currently receiving treatment, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your anxiety symptoms, including gagging.

2. Consider hypnosis

There is limited information available on hypnotherapy to reduce anxiety-induced gagging, but it might be worth a try. A report from 2002 indicated hypnotherapy as an effective way to overcome hypersensitive gag reflex. A case study from 2005 found that hypnopuncture, a combination of hypnosis and acupuncture, was successful in treating a patient. Hypnotherapy has also been found helpful to treat phagophobia (a fear of swallowing.)

3. Use acupuncture

A study from 2013 found the gag reflex during dental procedures was greatly reduced by the use of acupuncture. Previous studies have found the same results. Another study from 2008 found that applying pressure to a certain spot on the palm reduced the gag reflex. Although these were specifically for dental procedures, talk to a licensed acupuncturist to find out if this might help.

4. Home remedies

The following tips come from a variety of sources and have not been vetted for effectiveness. However, having a variety of techniques to help stop the gagging might be helpful.

  • Put salt on your tongue. According to Scott Frey, D.D.S., M.S.D., placing salt on the back of your tongue can help prevent gagging.

  • Breathe through your nose. The Dental Anxiety Network suggests closing your mouth and taking a deep breath through your nose.

  • Spray numbing spray on the back of your throat or suck on a tetricane one-percent lollipop to numb the back of the mouth. This is quite effective, according to Eric G. Jackson, D.D.S.

  • Slightly open your teeth and place your tongue through the opening. This helps to keep your tongue off the roof of your mouth, which can increase the need to gag, according to Joanna Dryer, an anxiety sufferer who has used this method for years. She adds, “Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose.”

  • Make a fist with your left hand. Buzzfeed writer Alex Finnis explains you should tuck your thumb in your fist and squeeze your hand tightly.

It might help to keep track of your triggers. If there are certain situations that are more likely than others to trigger the gag reflex, talk to your therapist about ways to manage your anxiety during these situations. Write down each time you gag and information about what was going on to see if there is a pattern. Keep in mind that the gag reflex is usually strongest in the morning. If you know that a situation is likely to trigger your gag reflex, plan for the activity later in the day, if possible.

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.