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Reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder are extremely common. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 30 percent of adults are affected by some form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
If you have an anxiety disorder, or if you’re simply feeling anxious, one symptom that you might experience is a feeling of tightness in your throat, or a “lump” in your throat.
This symptom is referred to clinically as globus pharyngeus, or globus sensation. It’s a common problem for people feeling stressed or anxious, and it can potentially lead to a vicious circle that makes your sense of anxiety worse.
While dealing with a tight throat caused by anxiety can be stressful, the good news is that there are several techniques that you can use to make this symptom less severe.
If your anxiety is a recurring problem, there are also treatments that you can use to gain control over your symptoms and improve your feelings, thoughts and behavior.
Below, we’ve explained why anxiety can cause a tight throat. We’ve also shared techniques for dealing with this common problem, as well as proven, evidence-based treatments that you can use to get your anxiety under control.
Anxiety is a common problem that can affect anyone. When you develop feelings of anxiety that are severe in intensity or sudden in onset, it can lead to physical symptoms, including a feeling of tightness in your throat.
Other physical symptoms of anxiety include:
An elevated heart rate or heart palpitations
Sweating, trembling and/or shaking
Feeling short of breath or as if you’ve choking
Muscle tension and a feeling that you’re wound up
These physical symptoms are part of your body’s "fight-or-flight" response — an internal survival mechanism that allows you to react quickly in stressful situations.
Your fight-or-flight response is triggered by a combination of activity in a part of your brain called the amygdala and hypothalamus and the release of stress hormones by your adrenal glands.
When you’re placed in a situation that makes you feel anxious, this natural stress response can happen extremely quickly. You might notice symptoms developing soon after you make contact with an anxiety trigger, such as a certain object or fear-inducing situation.
When anxiety causes your throat to tighten, simple things such as talking out loud can suddenly become difficult.
While it’s not always possible to completely control this symptom of anxiety, there are exercises that you can use to calm your mind, relax your throat muscles and gain some more control over your voice and breathing.
Try the following exercises and techniques when you feel anxious and notice your throat starting to tighten.
One popular technique to self-soothe stress and anxiety is diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing.” It involves breathing in and out slowly while engaging the stomach, diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
Research suggests that this type of breathing may trigger body relaxation responses and assist in improving mental health.
When you feel your throat tightening in response to anxiety, try the following steps to breathe in deeply and promote relaxation:
Lie flat or sit down in a position that makes you feel comfortable.
Place one hand on your chest, and the other slightly below your ribs.
Breathe in deeply through your nose, allowing your belly to push out your lower hand. Try to keep your chest steady and breathe in using your abdominal muscles.
Breathe out through your mouth, with your lips pursed. Gently use the hand placed on your abdomen to push out all of the air you inhaled.
Repeat this process up to 10 times, taking it slow and being deliberate with each deep breath.
After you’ve breathed in and out several times, you may notice that you feel more relaxed. Try to practice this breathing exercise at home whenever you experience anxiety.
Anxiety can sometimes cause a cricopharyngeal spasm — an excessive contraction of the small muscle in the upper portion of your esophagus that controls the flow of food and liquid.
Interestingly, the cricopharyngeal muscle tends to relax when you swallow. This means that one of the most effective ways to relieve this form of throat tension is to slowly drink a glass of water or a warm beverage.
If you often experience physical symptoms of anxiety throughout the day, or if you’re going to be in an anxiety-inducing situation (for example, giving a speech), make sure that you have a drink nearby to help calm your cricopharyngeal muscle and loosen your throat.
Anxiety can cause muscle tension, meaning the muscles in your neck may feel overly tight, firm and stiff. In addition to affecting your throat, neck stiffness may make it difficult, uncomfortable or painful to move your head into certain positions.
If you notice your neck stiffening when you’re anxious, performing neck and shoulder exercises may help to make this symptom less severe.
While sitting, tilt your head to one side, then hold it in this position for 15 seconds. Repeat this stretch on the other side, then give your muscles a short break. Try repeating this process three times to help your neck muscles relax.
If you develop tightness in your shoulders, try shrugging them up to your ears, then rolling them back down. You can repeat this exercise up to 10 times to relieve tension.
Although it’s normal to feel anxious from time to time, persistent or severe anxiety is often a sign that you might have an anxiety disorder.
If you think you might have a clinical anxiety disorder, it’s best to seek help from a mental health professional. You can do this by:
Letting your primary care provider know about your symptoms and, if appropriate, asking for a mental health referral.
Scheduling an appointment with a licensed psychiatrist in your city or region to talk about your symptoms.
Connecting with a licensed psychiatry provider from your home via our anxiety treatment online service.
Anxiety disorders are treatable, even when they involve severe symptoms. To treat your anxiety, your mental health provider may prescribe medication to control your symptoms, suggest taking part in therapy, recommend lifestyle changes or suggest a combination of approaches.
While there’s no cure for anxiety, several types of medication can reduce the severity of anxiety symptoms and give you more control over how you think and feel.
Depending on the type of anxiety disorder you have, your mental health provider may prescribe medication for you to use on a daily basis or whenever you experience anxiety symptoms.
Common medications used to treat anxiety include:
Antidepressants. Some types of antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can reduce the severity of anxiety by increasing your levels of natural chemicals that control your moods and/or feelings of stress.
Benzodiazepines. These medications work by relieving anxiety and promoting feelings of relaxation. They’re fast-acting and effective, but can be habit-forming and aren’t used very often as long-term anxiety treatments.
Beta-blockers. Beta-blockers work by controlling the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a rapid heartbeat and trembling. They’re often used for situational anxiety, such as performance anxiety that develops during presentations and other events.
Our guide to anxiety medications provides more information on how common anti-anxiety drugs work, as well as their potential side effects.
If you’re prescribed medication for anxiety, make sure to closely follow any instructions provided by your mental health provider. Inform your provider if you experience any side effects, or if you don’t notice any improvements in your symptoms after several weeks of treatment.
Many anxiety disorders improve with psychotherapy, or talk therapy, which involves talking with a mental health provider about your thoughts, feelings and behavior.
Several forms of psychotherapy are used to treat anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy involves learning new ways of thinking and behaving when you’re exposed to situations that cause you to feel anxious. Exposure therapy involves confronting the things that cause you to experience anxiety in a safe, controlled environment.
Your mental health provider may recommend psychotherapy on its own or in combination with anti-anxiety medication.
Sometimes, feelings of anxiety may improve with small but meaningful changes to your lifestyle and habits. In addition to medication and/or psychotherapy, consider trying the following techniques to gain more control over your anxiety:
Mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present, then accepting your feelings and sensations without any judgment. Research suggests that it may help to improve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.If you often feel anxious, try meditating at home for 10 to 15 minutes a day or taking part in a local meditation group.
Regular exercise and physical activity. Regular exercise can help to lower anxiety by distracting you from troubling, stress-inducing thoughts. It also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters and other chemicals that prevent anxiety and promote relaxation. Try to get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week. Even a short walk around your local neighborhood can potentially offer mental and physical health benefits.
Limiting caffeine. Research shows that consuming large amounts of caffeine can cause anxiety and, in patients with panic disorder, contribute to panic attacks. While it’s alright to drink coffee, it’s best to limit your intake to no more than four or five cups a day.
Healthy sleep habits. Research suggests that sleep deprivation can make anxiety and depression worse. This means that you may be more at risk of developing the physical symptoms of anxiety if you sleep poorly. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep per night. Simple habits, such as maintaining a regular bedtime and limiting caffeine after lunchtime, can help to make falling asleep and staying asleep easier.
Journaling. Some scientific research suggests that keeping a positive journal may help to lower mental distress and make anxiety and depression symptoms less severe. Try making a note of positive events that occur in your life in a daily or weekly journal.
Our guide to controlling anxiety shares other evidence-based techniques and healthy habits that you can use to limit the severity of your anxiety symptoms and promote relaxation.
It’s common to feel muscle tightness in your throat during times of stress, such as when you’re meeting someone new or giving a presentation in front of others.
If you often develop throat tightness due to anxiety, try the relaxation techniques listed above to calm your mind and relax your throat muscles.
If your anxiety is severe, persistent, or if it has a negative impact on your quality of life, it’s best to reach out to a mental health provider for help. You can do this by talking to your primary care provider, by seeking help locally or by using our online mental health services.
You can also learn more about successfully dealing with anxiety, depression, chronic stress and other mental health issues with our free mental health resources and content.
Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience.
As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.
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