Your question: Why does my anxiety give me reflux?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s not often talked about, but there is a strong connection between acid reflux and anxiety. They can combine to create a problematic cycle of mental and physical discomfort. This is because in episodes of anxiety our body becomes mentally and physically dysregulated. Unpleasant physical sensations such as stomach pain, joint numbness and reflux are just a few of them.

Anxiety is a normal response of our body to a stressful situation. We will deal with anxiety and stress constantly, in our work, studies, relationships and life in general. It is common and does not represent a problem as long as it does not become too recurrent and intense.

When anxiety becomes chronic then severe problems start. If you are reading this article you may already have been dealing with the unpleasant physical and psychological sensations related to anxiety, specifically gastric reflux.

What does reflux have to do with anxiety?

There is a strong relationship between acid reflux and anxiety. The two can combine to create a problematic cycle of mental and physical discomfort. It is critical to understand how the two are connected in order to stop heartburn generated by acid reflux and anxiety.

Reflux occurs when we swallow food and it travels down the esophagus into the stomach, where stomach acid helps to decompose it. When, after this process, the esophageal sphincter does not close to keep the acid out of the esophagus, it distends and causes it to leak into the esophagus, causing irritation and heartburn (1).

A 2018 study(2) conducted on 27,906 subjects revealed that there is a significant correlation between gastroesophageal reflux and anxiety and depression. Another 2013 study indicated that reflux esophagitis is significantly associated with elevated stress(3). The authors point out that in addition to gastroesophageal reflux, other associated symptoms are pain behind the breastbone and heartburn.

Anxiety can decrease pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, the band of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus that allows food and liquids to pass into the stomach. When this sphincter relaxes abnormally, stomach acid can back up through the esophagus, causing heartburn. Stress caused by anxiety can also affect the contractions that occur in the esophagus, which push food into the stomach. If these contractions become irregular, it can lead to reflux. Finally, high levels of stress and anxiety can increase stomach acid production.

In addition, people with reflux often feel anxious about their medical condition because unpleasant sensations such as irritation and burning make them think it is a more severe medical problem.

How can you treat this?

Different habits and activities can help you manage stress, which can worsen or trigger heartburn and acid reflux. You must remember that our mind and body are connected, so unpleasant emotional sensations will eventually take their toll on the body.

 Some suggestions are:

  • Keep a journal in which you record the events that cause you the most anxiety in your day-to-day life. This will allow you to identify which aspect of your life is the biggest anxiety generator, to eventually work on that area and decrease anxiety and stress levels.
  • Take slow (not deep) breaths during episodes of anxiety. Try to sit down and close your eyes, counting backwards from 10 to 1, as many times as necessary until the feeling of anxiety decreases.
  • Exercising regularly will allow you not only to improve your physical condition, but also to release endorphins that will give you satisfaction and happiness, as well as allow you to create new social bonds.
  • See your family doctor regularly to treat the physical symptoms of reflux.
  • Avoid cigarettes and alcohol.

In my experience…

Anxiety has many ways of manifesting itself both physically and emotionally. The feeling of reflux in anxiety is more common than you might think, and is a normal response to the dysregulation that anxiety causes in your body. Likewise, it is important that you address the reflux sensation in parallel with a specialized physician, as well as implement strategies to reduce anxiety, thus working together to improve your mind and body.

Remember that we all have the ability to improve our psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression we feel that we are hopeless. We can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads us in the right direction. Apply the techniques at your own pace and I am confident that you will gradually improve. It was a pleasure to write to you

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