The gag reflex: it can interfere while in the dentist's chair, upon seeing another person throw up, or even just getting a whiff of a disgusting, stomach-twisting scent. Every time this reflex kicks in, it stops us immediately, inducing a choking, gagging, coughing fit.
To get control over your throat and stop your gag reflex whenever it pops up, all you have to do is put a little pressure on your skin.
Though we might assume our gag reflex kicks in due to a sensitive spot in our mouths and throats, the source of the problem is actually psychological. As a pair of researchers discovered, we revert to gagging both automatically and whenever we think we should do so.
In a study conducted by Bangladesh researchers Shriprasad Sarapur and Shilpashree H.S., the gag reflex is explained in two ways: physiological and psychological. The first is what makes it a true reflex. When something slides too far down our throat, we react by immediately trying to expel the invading force. We react psychologically, however, when it comes to scenarios like vomit. When someone else pukes and we're there to watch, we immediately feel our throat muscles contract —and it's also disgusting.
Although it can be problematic and unpleasant, researchers Sarapur and Shilpashree note that both forms of the gag reflex are both normal and protective. Our body reacts in such a way to prevent foreign objects that are potentially harmful from entering through the throat. Whether triggered via touch, sight, sound, or scent, all gag reflexes are simply an attempt to keep us safe.
Getting over your gag reflex is most commonly attempted through this method: a tough thumb-squeeze. Widely circulated online, this trick is one that has its roots in science.
As Lifehacker reports, a strong gag reflex can be countered and distracted by encircling your left thumb in a fist—and it works quickly. In a 2008 study, researchers examining new ways to prevent gag reflexes from interfering with dental work discovered that participants who gripped their left thumb in a tight fist (made by the fingers of the same hand) were immediately soothed.
Application of the trick varies, but in the years since 2008 the thumb and fist trick has gained popularity. The pressure placed upon that thumb is distracting enough to take your mind off of the invading tool at hand and ease the throat muscles, making dental work—and any other gag-inducing work—easier to perform.
According to the same Lifehacker-reported study, moving the pressure you place on your thumb can have the same effects on the gag reflex. In fact, by shifting the placement of pressure on the hand, you can hold off the gag reflex and endure even deeper intrusion into the throat.
The Hegu point, or the concave soft point between your thumb and index finger, is the perfect place to apply pressure when faced with a strong gag reflex. Press down on this fleshy spot, and gradually increase the pressure. Researchers found that patients who couldn't quite fight their gag reflex during dental impressions were calmed and more tolerant.
An additional research study, conducted by the same Bangladesh team mentioned before, also suggests pressing the Hegu point. Known as an "acupuncture cave," this spot makes patients able to tolerate uncomfortable dental procedures of anywhere from five to 20 minutes. If your skin starts feeling the pain of the pressure, though, your gag reflex will be on the verge of return.
The Hegu point is also known to relieve headaches. For more information, see Yumi's guide, "Acupressure 101: Relieve Mental & Physical Stress Using These Acupoints."
Finally, if your hands aren't helping you to reduce the prominence of the gag reflex, you might want to turn to your face. In the same research study mention above, Shriprasad Sarapur and Shilpashree H.S. found that an additional acupressure point between the chin and lower lip works equally well.
The researchers suggest placing your finger on the groove resting just above the chin and underneath your lower lip. This small indent, when pressure is applied, reduces the gag reflex—but it was also found to increase discomfort. When pressed, pain relocates to and focuses on this facial groove, taking the mind off of whatever is happening internally. Though it allows dental work, and dissuaded any gag reflex issues, it was the most painful option for participants.
The key to getting past a gag reflex isn't practice, or repeated introduction. Instead, it's more psychological. When we relocate the pressure we feel in our throats elsewhere in the body, we are better able to endure the discomfort of the throat—no matter what intrusion occurs.