You’ve probably experienced this before: You’re about to make a big public speech, go on a first date, or interview for a new job. You’re feeling understandably nervous about it. But, not only are you feeling emotionally anxious – there’s an uncomfortable sensation in your stomach as well.
You might describe it as “butterflies.” Or, the sensation might be less pleasant, like a knot or a sinking feeling in your stomach. Whatever you call it, that bodily sensation is connected to your thoughts and emotions.
In this article, we’ll review how your gut and mind are connected, why anxiety can sometimes cause stomach problems, and what you can do about it.
Can anxiety and stress cause stomach problems?
We have all experienced stomach issues and nervousness at the same time. But are the two really linked?
The short answer is yes. Anxiety and stress can, and do, cause stomach problems.
Think about it: when you’re worried about an upcoming deadline or traveling to an unfamiliar location – and feel your pulse racing, palms sweating, and your heartbeat pounding in your ears (often a sign of an increase in blood pressure) – you are not consciously causing these things to happen. Your body is responding to a release of epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline, that kickstarts those processes.
Similarly, anxiety and stress can trigger the release of hormones in the stomach, causing gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Some of the GI symptoms that can be caused by anxiety and stress are:
- Loss of appetite
- Gastritis (inflammation in the lining of the stomach)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Peptic ulcers
And while many of the stomach issues listed above are only mildly concerning, conditions like gastritis and peptic ulcers, when left untreated, may pose a serious threat to a person’s health.
The mind-gut connection
You may have heard that scientists have found, and continue to research, a connection between the brain and the “gut” or gastrointestinal tract. The ‘gut-brain axis’ is a communication network between the central nervous system-your brain and spinal cord-and enteric nervous system.
The enteric nervous system, sometimes called the “brain of the gut,” operates separately from the central nervous system and is a vast network of nerve cells controlling everything from digestion to the “butterflies” you feel when you’re anxious.
You might think of the gut-brain axis like two tennis players in a match. Both sides are involved and make moves according to what the other does. For example, the mere thought of eating a food can stimulate your stomach to begin ramping up the digestive process. In the opposite direction, if you haven’t eaten for hours, your stomach triggers the release of ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite.
On top of that, both sides are affected by the enteric microbiome, or the collection of all the microorganisms living in the gut. We might think of the gut microbiome as the weather conditions during the tennis match. Certain weather just makes for better playing environments than others.
For example, scientists have discovered similar patterns in the microbiomes of animal models used to study anxiety and major depression.
In one study, researchers transferred the microbiomes from rats who showed signs of major depression into healthy rats who showed no signs of depression. What they discovered is the previously healthy rats began to show signs of depression. These findings, and studies like them, suggest the gut microbiome may have a significant influence, through the mind-gut connection, on mental health.
What settles a stressed stomach?
Dealing with the GI issues associated with stress and anxiety can be tough. On top of whatever you’re worried about taking up energy and brain space, your body is joining in on the action. It can be tough to manage.
Here, we’ll go over seven tips that might help you if you’re dealing with an upset stomach from stress or anxiety.
When someone is in an anxious or agitated state, there’s a reason people usually say things like, “Calm down. Take a deep breath.”
Remember, when we are stressed, the body’s natural tendency to initiate a stress response – fight, flight, or freeze. It begins releasing adrenaline causing rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure, body temperature, and short, shallow breathing. Your brain is alerting you to the ‘danger’ ahead so that you can do something about it.
Deep breathing, especially abdominal or “belly” breathing, stimulates your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve sends a signal from the belly to the brain, letting your brain know that everything is okay. Your brain, receiving word that you are not in immediate danger, signals the body to stop producing adrenaline, slow your heart rate down and lower your blood pressure and body temperature.
You can practice belly breathing while sitting, standing, or lying down. Try to make yourself as comfortable as possible and begin breathing deeply through your nose. Some people find it helpful to slowly count from 1 to 5 while breathing in. Exhale slowly and gently while counting from 1 to 5. Repeat the inhale/exhale cycles as many times as you need or for at least 5 minutes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is another exercise designed to help counter the physical sensations that often accompany stress and anxiety. Like the name suggests, this exercise involves tensing and relaxing your muscles, focusing on one muscle at a time and progressing from head-to-toe or toe-to-head.
The idea behind PMR is that you cannot focus on relaxation while also focusing on the symptoms of stress or anxiety, and it has been proven to be an effective tool in decreasing stress, creating a more relaxed state, and improving overall wellbeing.
Try herbal remedies
When you have an anxious stomach, tea can be just the thing that helps tame your tummy. Whether you drink it purely for relaxation or to ease the GI distress that sometimes comes with stress and anxiety, there are tons of tea options.
Chamomile tea is perhaps the most widely known for its natural relaxing properties, but it can also help reduce acid production in the stomach and relieve pain associated with stomach cramps.
Ginger has long been used as a cure for nausea and digestive issues like gas and bloating. Gingerol, a natural compound in ginger, has antioxidant and anti inflammatory properties, making it a good option to help potentially heal damage to the stomach lining.
Peppermint tea is a refreshing and soothing option for calming an anxious stomach that has been around for centuries. It has the ability to regulate pain receptors and reduce stomach pain.
Take OTC medication
Over-the-counter medication is another option for helping calm an anxious stomach. Stress and anxiety can increase acid production in the stomach, causing heartburn, indigestion, and creating an environment where ulcers can form. Antacids and acid reducers can help combat those symptoms.
Find a quiet place
Sometimes a busy, noisy environment can add to the feelings of stress or anxiety you might be having. Finding a quiet place to practice relaxation techniques could be just what you need to feel calmer and more grounded.
Caffeine does not directly cause anxiety, but it’s stimulant effects can make symptoms worse. Especially in large amounts, caffeine consumption can look similar to anxiety. You might:
- Feel restless or on edge
- Have a rapid heart beat, palpitations
- Have trouble concentrating
- Feel irritable or easily agitated
- Have trouble sleeping or struggle to get quality sleep
To help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, consider reducing or even eliminating your caffeine intake.
Get anxiety treatment
While it is common to feel anxious in certain situations, constantly feeling anxious, worried, or stressed might be a sign that something more is going on.
If you suspect your worrying is negatively impacting your daily life, it may be time to seek anxiety treatment and work with a professional. A professional counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist has access to resources like therapeutic tools and medication to help treat anxiety.
When to see a doctor
We know from the gut-brain connection that stress and anxiety can have an impact on your GI system. Taking steps to reduce your stress or consuming foods that help alleviate the symptoms can be helpful.
However, the gut-brain connection is not a one-way street. Issues in the stomach might be a result of stress or anxiety and treating underlying anxiety is a great step. Still, there are a number of other issues that can cause similar symptoms; it is important to see a doctor to rule out other GI issues.
Whole Person Care at The Center • A Place of HOPE
At The Center, we’ve always understood the profound connection between mind and body. That’s why we use a unique Whole Person Care approach, which was created by our founder. Dr. Jantz, in the 1980s.
Using this approach, we address every aspect of your holistic health – mental, physical, spiritual, nutritional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. When you participate in our treatment programs, we help you take a look at every one of these aspects and how they may be contributing to your condition. Healing happens at every level.
For more information about admissions, get in touch with us or schedule a call.
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