Do you have a persistent tickling in your throat that makes you cough to clear it, but it either stays or comes back? Is your cough non-productive, hacking? Does it get worse when you’re anxious or stressed and get better when you relax?

If this is you, the cough you have is an anxiety cough.

This kind of cough has tremendous variability. It can come and go, happen often, or even stay all the time. It can come with episodes of anxiety or on its own. An anxiety cough can be severe or mild, can come almost in waves, and can vary from day to day or even more frequently.

The medical term for this feeling of a lump in your throat that you can’t get rid of is Globus pharyngeus. Experiencing this can lead you to wonder if there’s something seriously wrong with you. Maybe even throat cancer! All this does is generate more anxiety and make the feeling of the lump in your throat even worse.

It is important for you to consult with your physician if you feel this kind of lump.

What is happening here is a tensing of your throat muscles, including the esophagus. This is a normal response when you’re feeling anxious. Your neck and shoulder muscles will tense and stay tensed as long as you stay anxious.

Causes of Anxiety Cough

Besides the tension of your muscles mentioned above, there are other reasons for your anxiety cough.

  • Suppression of your immune system. At first glance, this wouldn’t seem to be a reason for your persistent cough. Here’s the way it works: Anxiety is just another stressor to your body. And your body responds like it does to all stress. Your body diverts energy from “non-essential” systems to those that help you fight or flee from stress. Your immune system in this case is one of those non-essentials. Inhibiting your immune system allows bacteria and viruses to get a start in your body. Both of them cause coughs. Continuing anxiety and stress make the coughs persist because they keep your immune system limited.
  • Vagus nerve overstimulation. The vagus nerve is a major nerve running from your gut system to your brain. Stress caused by anxiety will overstimulate this nerve. When this happens, it commonly leads to a dry, non-productive anxiety cough. If this overstimulation continues, so will the cough.
  • Rapid, shallow breathing. This kind of breathing is common with anxiety. The more you do it, the more your throat will get raw and dry, leading to coughs.

What You Can Do

  • Learn to deep breathe. This is essentially a relaxation exercise. Breathe in slowly through your nose for about five seconds. Hold your breath for two seconds. Breathe out through your mouth for at least seven seconds. Do this multiple times every day.
  • Learn to think differently. Rather than allowing your thoughts to stay on anxious things, list several positive things you can think about. When you feel anxious, pull out the list and think about one of the positive things.