Phagophobia, or a fear of swallowing, causes acute anxiety in sufferers when they are eating or taking oral medications. Experts state that cases involving a fear of swallowing have been under-reported. Many people are reluctant to discuss their phobia because of shame or embarrassment, and they are surprised to learn that phagophobia is relatively common. Often, the signs of phagophobia are misinterpreted, and the fear is misdiagnosed as an eating disorder.
Sufferers of phagophobia experience difficulty eating and often are reluctant to eat, especially in public. Depending on the severity of the fear, patients might display typical signs of acute anxiety such as elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, dry mouth or nausea when attempting to eat. Severe cases can cause gagging and vomiting, a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy that continues to feed the phobia.
Phagophobiacs are likely to be underweight and malnourished. Many confuse a fear of swallowing with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Family, friends and even the sufferers might believe an eating disorder to be responsible. Phagophobiacs do not, however, suffer from the anorexic’s distorted body image and do not choose to under-eat. In these cases, malnutrition is a result of fear, not design.
Often, a traumatic incident is responsible for the fear of swallowing. Sufferers often can trace their anxieties to a single event, often a case of choking or vomiting. Many of these events happen during childhood, although adult experiences and traumas also can trigger a fear of swallowing. Fear of swallowing usually is rooted in a fear of repeating this incident.
People who are more anxious by nature are more vulnerable to phobias such as phagophobia. Fear of swallowing also can result from cases involving childhood abuse and intimidation. Force-feeding or parental anxiety about food issues also can contribute to this phobia.
Fears such as phagophobia can be managed, treated and, in some cases, even cured. Without a proper diagnosis, however, treatment cannot begin, and the condition is unlikely to improve. Individuals suffering from these or similar symptoms should consult with a medical professional to identify the condition and receive the best advice for treatment.
Physical therapy, psychological therapy and medication might be used to help treat phagophobia. Some sufferers find success with self-help exercises to reduce anxiety to manageable levels during mealtimes. Breathing and visualization techniques can help to calm these individuals.
Simple props also can be beneficial. For instance, water can be used to wash down food. With this aid in place, the individual might experience reduced levels of anxiety, and in some cases will be able to eat without incident. In some cases, however, the aid becomes a crutch, and the sufferer can become overly reliant on it. Consultation with a professional is recommended for anyone dealing with a severe phobia.