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Mental Illness

Phagophobia

If you know your Latin, you know that phagophobia means fear of eating. It’s an odd concept for most of us. Food is a source of comfort, nourishment, and joy, but for me, and others like me, it can also be a huge source of tension.

I’m not actually afraid of food, my specific strain of phagophobia is more accurately called pseudodysphagia, which is defined as “the irrational fear of swallowing or choking.” There isn’t a lot of information readily available, but what I’ve found has confirmed my experiences. Pseudodysphagia is usually a symptom of anxiety or depression, and is typically the result of a specific event. In my case, it started a few years ago.  I was taking muscle relaxers and codeine for severe back pain, and one night I realized that I had forgotten to eat before taking my pills. Since this was a surefire recipe for regurgitation, Mr.B took me out for some food. About halfway though the meal, my medication kicked in with a vengeance. I took a big ole’ bite of my fish sandwich, and when I went to swallow it, there was a sort of hiccup in the process. I tried to swallow and it just didn’t happen.  I was stuck sitting there, with a mouthful of food and no idea what to do with it. Eventually I got it down, but I was totally freaked out.  I forced myself to eat a few more bites, but it was incredibly difficult. I found myself thinking about every single thing my mouth did while I was eating, and apparently thinking about an automatic body function makes it kind of hard to do. Eventually I gave up, resolved to never again eat after taking muscle relaxers and codeine, and I thought it was over. Unfortunately, the next day I sat down to breakfast, took a bite and panicked.  What if it happened again? Funny thing here, when you panic the muscles of your throat constrict. So if you are having an anxiety attack about not being able to swallow your food, your body helpfully makes it harder to swallow your food. Thanks for that one, Mother Nature.

My first bout lasted for a few weeks. I learned to drink as much as I could first thing in the morning when I was still in zombie-mode, before my mind was awake enough to remember my fears. I had to stop eating in restaurants, because the fear of choking in front of strangers made eating next to impossible, but I figured out that I could get a good bit of food down while I was driving or watching TV and my mind was occupied with other things. One of the hardest parts for me was telling Mr.B what was going on. When I am in anxiety mode, I feel a powerful need to hide my dysfunction from other people. I’m pretty good at it, I can look normal like the best of them, but my husband couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t eating. When I did explain it, it took a while for him to accept that this was a real thing, and it wasn’t something he could fix for me. Eventually, I just willed myself to get better. I was eating and drinking so little that, out of desperation, I made myself remember that I knew how to eat, I had known how to eat for years and I just had to get over it.

Unfortunately, even though things got better, the problem never really went away. It was like the anxiety monsters that live in my head said “Dude, check it out! We have this whole new avenue to explore when things get stressful!” Sometimes I can go months at a time without really thinking about it, but there always seems to come a day when, out of nowhere, I take a bite and my world turns upside down. Even when things are relatively “normal,” I have a hard time eating and drinking at the same time. The mechanics of swallowing food are slightly different than those for swallowing liquids, and I am afraid of switching between the two. I usually drink before a meal, eat my food, and then drink some more after I have left the table. It’s weird, but it works for me. This is by far the suckiest form of anxiety attack I have ever had to deal with, and from what I can tell, one never gets over it 100%.

The good news is, my case is fairly mild. My bouts don’t last longer than a couple of weeks at a time and, as I said earlier, I’ve figured out ways to distract myself enough to get some food down even when things are bad. In my reading, I heard that hypnosis is one of the more effective treatments for pseudodysphgia, so when it hit me again last Saturday I decided to see what I could do with self-hypnosis. Every night I meditate on what life was like before, when I could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted without fear. I remind myself that this is all in my head, and if I just stay relaxed I will be fine. And I’ve been eating a lot of chocolate. Chocolate is my tether to normalcy. Apparently, my love for chocolate is stronger than my fear of not being able to swallow. No matter how bad things have gotten, I have always been able to eat chocolate. The fact that I can eat one thing without difficulty helps me convince myself that I can eat other things too. This two-pronged attack, self-hypnosis and chocolate, seems to be working quite well. Since I started, I have only had to deal with food anxiety for two or three hours a day, and I believe even that will pass by next weekend.

If any of you have ever had to deal with this fear or know someone who has, I feel for you. What has helped you? Please share any tips or tricks you have learned in the comments.

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at www.etsy.com/shop/AngryOwlStudio if you're interested in checking it out.

5 replies on “Phagophobia”

Thank you for sharing!

I’ve kind of had similar problems (with food and with phobias, but never really the both, though I do have problems swallowing thanks to acid reflux) and I’m working really hard in therapy to do different self-hypnosis type things.  It’s scary and overwhelming most of the time, but I noticed lately I’m not as anxious and feeling kind of happy most days actually and much kinder to myself.

Good luck with your hypnosis and your chocolate. :)

I have had this happen before and it was super scary.  That was only a couple times, too.   I can’t imagine what it’s like to have it as a recurring problem.  I was also wondering what Ruby said, about soft foods being better? Although since you said that drinking can be a problem too, maybe soft foods wouldn’t help.

At least you know you can fall back on chocolate.  It’s in times of stress that you know what your true comfort foods are.

Being flip actually helps a little.  Being able to laugh at myself has always been an anxiety reducer.

Eating soft foods is traditionally part of the treatment process.  People start with things that are easy to swallow and work their way up.  Sometimes it helps me, sometimes it doesn’t.  Oddly enough, when I’m super anxious and having trouble with soft food, weird foods like tacos can be easier.  I get distracted by all the conflicting textures and swallow without thinking about it.  I’ve had good luck with foods that are really hot/cold/spicy for the same reason.

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