Esophageal Spasms And Anxiety

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated February 14, 2022

esophageal spasms anxiety symptoms

Esophageal Spasms, such as a sudden chest pain or “flutter” that can radiate to the back, neck, jaw, throat, and arms, are not as common as other anxiety symptoms, but they can occur for some anxious and stressed people.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and esophagus spasms.

Symptoms

There are two types of esophageal spasms:

  • Occasional contractions (diffuse esophageal spasms) - This type of esophageal spasm can be painful and is often accompanied by regurgitation of food or liquids.
  • Painfully strong contractions (“nutcracker” or “jackhammer” esophagus) – This type of spasm produces severe pain but generally doesn’t cause regurgitation of food or liquids.

Common esophageal spasm symptom descriptions - what it feels like when your esophagus spasms:

 

  • You have a sudden chest pain that can radiate to the back, neck, jaw, throat, and arms. This pain can be so strong that it mimics a heart attack.
  • You have irregular chest pains or esophagus spasms in your chest.
  • You have a sudden “squeezing in your chest” feeling.
  • It can also feel like your esophagus is squeezing much tighter than normal. Sometimes this can interfere with swallowing.
  • You suddenly have difficulty swallowing, or have difficulty swallowing certain substances, such as red wine or very hot or cold liquids.
  • It can also feel like you have something stuck in your throat.
  • You can also have food or liquids back up in your esophagus (regurgitation).
  • You have a sudden sharp or stabbing pain in your chest, neck, throat, or sternum, which someone might interpret as having a heart attack.
  • A sudden “squeezing,” “pressure,” or “nauseated” feeling in your chest or throat.
  • A sudden fullness, gagging, or heavy feeling in the throat.
  • It can also feel like your stomach has spasmed, clenched, or suddenly tightened, but the feeling can also occur a little higher than the stomach.

NOTE: Because this pain can resemble that of a heart attack, it’s best to seek immediate medical attention if you aren’t sure what is causing the pain.

Esophageal spasms often occur rarely but can occur more frequently for some people.

They can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms or occur by themselves.

They can also precede, accompany, or follow a period of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress, or occur "out of the blue" and for no apparent reason.

Esophageal spasms can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. They can also come in waves where they are strong one moment and subside the next.

This symptom can change from day to day and moment to moment.

All the above combinations and variations are common.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test, Anxiety Disorder Test, or Hyperstimulation Test.

The higher the rating, the more likely anxiety could be contributing to or causing your anxiety symptoms, including feeling like impending doom symptoms.

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Causes

Medical Advisory

Talk to your doctor about all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms.

Click the link for Additional Medical Advisory Information.

What are esophageal spasms?

Esophageal spasms are sudden muscle contractions (spasms) in the esophagus, which is the tube linking your throat to your stomach.

1. The stress response

Anxious behavior activates the body’s stress response, causing many physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that prepare the body for immediate, emergency action – to either fight or flee.

This survival reaction is why the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”).[1][2]

The stress response causes many body-wide changes, including:

  • Causing muscles to tighten so that the body is more resilient to harm.
  • Stimulates the body to have energy to either fight or flee.
  • Stimulates the nervous system to make the body more sensitive and reactive to danger.

To name a few.

Any of the above changes can cause muscle tremors, twitching, and spasms, including the esophagus for some people since the esophagus is a muscle.

Some anxious people get esophageal spasms due to acute stress, such as from acute anxiety.

2. Hyperstimulation

When stress responses occur too frequently, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, the body can become hyperstimulated (chronically stressed) since stress hormones are stimulants.

Hyperstimulation is also often referred to as “hyperarousal,” “HPA axis dysfunction,” or “nervous system dysregulation.”[3][4]

Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about the many ways hyperstimulation can affect the body and how we feel.

Hyperstimulation can cause the changes of an active stress response even though a stress response hasn’t been activated.

Reoccurring and persistent muscle tremors, twitching, and spasms are common symptoms of hyperstimulation.

Esophageal spasms are a common indication of hyperstimulation (chronic stress) for some people.

Anxiety and depression are common causes of esophageal spasms.[5]

3. Stomach upset

Excess stomach acid and reflux can also cause the esophagus to spasm for some people.

4. Other Factors

Other factors can create stress and aggravate this anxiety symptom, including:

Select the relevant link for more information.

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Treatment - How To Stop Esophageal Spasms?

When esophageal spasms are caused or aggravated by other factors, addressing those factors can reduce and eliminate it.

When esophageal spasms are caused by stomach upset and acid reflux, eliminating the stomach upset and acid reflux problems can cause esophageal spasms to subside.

When esophageal spasms are by apprehensive behavior and the accompanying stress response changes, calming yourself down will end the active stress response and its changes. As your body recovers from the active stress response, this anxiety symptom should subside.

Keep in mind, it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. This is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When this symptom is caused by hyperstimulation, eliminating hyperstimulation will end this symptom.

You can eliminate hyperstimulation by:

  • Reducing stress.
  • Containing anxious behavior (since anxiety creates stress).
  • Regular deep relaxation.
  • Avoiding stimulants.
  • Regular light to moderate exercise.
  • Eating a healthy diet of whole and natural foods.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms until they subside.
  • Being patient as your body recovers.

To name a few.

Visit our “60 Natural Ways To Reduce Stress” article for more ways to reduce stress.

As your body recovers from hyperstimulation, it stops sending involuntary symptoms, including this one. Eventually, ALL anxiety symptoms completely disappear as the body regains its normal, non-hyperstimulated health.

But eliminating hyperstimulation can take much longer than most people think, causing symptoms to linger as long as the body is even slightly hyperstimulated.

Even so, since this is a symptom of chronic stress (hyperstimulation), it's harmless and needn't cause concern.

Anxiety symptoms often linger because:

  • The body is still being stressed (from stressful circumstances or anxious behavior).
  • Your stress hasn't diminished enough or for long enough.
  • Your body hasn't completed its recovery work.

Addressing the reason for lingering symptoms will allow the body to recover.

Most often, lingering anxiety symptoms ONLY remain because of the above reasons. They AREN'T a sign of a more serious medical problem.

Chronic anxiety symptoms subside when hyperstimulation is eliminated. As the body recovers and stabilizes, chronic anxiety symptoms will slowly diminish and eventually disappear.

Since worrying and becoming upset about anxiety symptoms create stress, these behaviors can interfere with recovery.

Passively accepting your symptoms while doing your recovery work will cause their cessation in time. Passive acceptance means not reacting to, resisting, or worrying about your symptoms.

Acceptance, practice, and patience are key to recovery.

Keep in mind that it can take a long time for the body to recover from the effects of hyperstimulation. It's best to faithfully work at your recovery despite the lack of apparent progress.

If you persevere with your recovery work, you will succeed.

You also have to do your recovery work FIRST before your body can recover. The cumulative effects of your recovery work will produce results down the road. And, the body's stimulation has to diminish before symptoms can subside.

  • Faithfully practicing your recovery strategies.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms.
  • Containing anxious behavior.
  • Being patient.

These will bring results in time.

When you do the right work, the body has to recover!

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Short-term strategies

Even though eliminating hyperstimulation will eliminate chronic anxiety symptoms, any activity that reduces stress and increases rest can help reduce and eliminate esophageal spasms.

Again, visit our article “60 Ways To Reduce Stress And Anxiety” for natural stress reduction strategies.

Therapy

Unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors cause issues with anxiety. As such, they are the primary reason why anxiety symptoms persist.[6][7][8]

Addressing your underlying factors (Level Two recovery) is most important if you want lasting success.

Addressing Level Two recovery can help you:

  • Contain anxious behavior.
  • Become unafraid of anxiety symptoms and the strong feelings of anxiety.
  • End anxiety symptoms.
  • Successfully address the underlying factors that so often cause issues with anxiety.
  • End what can feel like out-of-control worry.

All our recommended anxiety therapists have had anxiety disorder and overcame it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder and their Master's Degree and above professional training gives them insight other therapists don't have.

If you want to achieve lasting success over anxiety disorder, any one of our recommended therapists would be a good choice.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to treat anxiety disorder.

In many cases, working with an experienced therapist is the only way to overcome stubborn anxiety.

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Esophageal Spasms Frequent Questions

Are esophageal spasms dangerous?

Typically, no, esophageal spasms are not dangerous. They most often occur suddenly and end quickly. However, you want to be sure there isn’t a medical cause related to the spasms. Discussing your esophageal spasms with your doctor can rule out a medical cause.

Can you die from esophageal spasms?

Typically, no. Spasms in the esophagus aren’t considered dangerous and pose no serious risk. However, it’s important to ensure there isn’t a medical cause, such as angina or coronary artery disease. It’s best to discuss your esophagus spasms with your doctor.

Can esophageal spasms cause anxiety?

Anxiety is caused by behavior. If you are worried or concerned about your esophagus spasms, that worry and concern can cause anxiety since those are common behaviors that cause anxiety. Learning to contain anxiety can eliminate anxiety related to esophagus spasms.

Can I get rid of my esophageal spasms for good?

Eliminating the cause of your esophagus spasms can eliminate esophageal spasms for good. However, it might take some work to overcome your anxiety issues before you completely eliminate your esophagus spasms. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome problems with anxiety.

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Prevalence

Approximately 20 percent of anxious people experience this symptom.

For more information about muscle-related symptoms:

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Esophageal Spasms anxiety symptoms.

References

1. Berczi, Istvan. “Walter Cannon's ‘Fight or Flight Response’ - ‘Acute Stress Response.’” Walter Cannon's "Fight or Flight Response" - "Acute Stress Response", 2017.

2. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health, 6 July 2020.

3. Elbers, Jorina, et al. "Wired for Threat: Clinical Features of Nervous System Dysregulation in 80 Children." Pediatric Neurology, Dec 2018.

4. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

5. Mayo Clinic Staff. "Esophageal spasms." Mayo Clinic, March 2020.

6. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

7. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

8. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.