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Although the relationship between acid reflux and anxiety attacks may not be immediately obvious, there is a strong link, albeit a complicated one. A Gallop poll revealed that 64 percent of people with acid reflux reported an increase in their symptoms when exposed to stressful situations.
Symptoms Without Cause
Researchers decided to study the link between anxiety and acid reflux by exposing volunteers to stress while using a sensitive instrument placed at the lower end of the esophagus to measure acid levels to determine instances of acid reflux and the frequency and duration of the events. The study revealed no increase in frequency or duration of acid reflux when the volunteers were experiencing stress. When the researchers tested a second group of volunteers composed of people who had already reported increased symptoms of acid reflux when experiencing anxiety, the researchers again found no actual increase in frequency or duration of acid reflux during the stress periods.
The Psychological Component
The researchers then decided to turn to a more psychological portrait of the subjects. This methodology was suggested by the fact that 80 percent of patients who report symptoms of acid reflux don't actually show signs of esophageal inflammation or irritation. The researchers determined that it's possible that in patients who report high levels of anxiety in their daily lives and an increase of acid reflux symptoms during periods of high anxiety but don't actually show any esophageal damage, these increased acid reflux symptoms may be caused merely by the patient's perception of their symptoms during periods of high stress rather than any actual change in acid concentration and the intensity or duration of acid reflux. The researchers speculated that it's also possible anxiety causes a change in the way the esophagus registers the discomfort associated with the same level of acid.
Lower Stress, Fewer Symptoms
When the patients were taught progressive muscle relaxation techniques to combat their stress, they reported decreased levels of acid reflux symptoms. Interestingly, although their acid levels never actually went up during periods of stress during testing, their acid levels did go down immediately after employing the relaxation techniques.
The researchers concluded that while stress does have an effect on the symptoms of acid reflux, they will have to do further research to determine the exact mechanism.