Who isn’t familiar with the sensation of butterflies in your stomach before a big presentation or test? As it turns out, your tummy and brain share an intricate link, and what happens in one influences the other — and vice versa. It’s a two-way street, and scientists have only begun to unravel the link between anxiety and stomach problems.
Gastrointestinal distress is a frequent anxiety symptom many people overlook. If you’ve experienced more than your share of constipation, diarrhea, nausea and bloating lately, it’s crucial to evaluate all the factors contributing to your distress if you want lasting relief.
That unsettled feeling in your belly is something you should heed.
What’s the link between anxiety and stomach problems? Think of it as a tale of two cities connected by a superhighway — your vagus nerve. This biggest of your 12 cranial nerves carries messages from your gut to your brain and vice versa. It’s very much bidirectional.
Your vagus nerve is part of your parasympathetic nervous system — the side in charge of your rest and digestion functions. It can become overstimulated because of excess mental and emotional stress or a disruption in your gut microbiota, the colonies of healthy bacteria that aid digestion and keep everything running smoothly below. You develop symptoms like indigestion, diarrhea, nausea and constipation when it does.
Your tummy trouble could stem from mental or physical causes, but these often interconnect. For example, you might develop gastrointestinal symptoms that make you nervous about potential health problems, especially if you have a history of intestinal disorders in your family. The resulting stress could make you feel even worse, creating a negative feedback loop where worrying increases your pain, and that agony creates more tension.
The problem you face is how to find relief, whether your digestive upset stems from anxiety symptoms or something you ate. That requires a holistic approach to care that combines traditional medical interventions with mindfulness training and proven stress-reducing techniques.
You should seek medical treatment for conditions that may have an underlying physical cause, but you can often determine if stress might contribute to your discomfort. What anxiety symptoms should you know to explore mindfully, evaluating if you may have such a disorder? Here’s a short list of signs to consider beyond your tummy trouble:
Any of the above signs could signify that anxiety contributes to stomach issues. It may or may not be the only contributor, but it plays a role in your overall discomfort. Stress management techniques like the ones listed below may help, although you should book an appointment with your doctors if you don’t find relief.
Sometimes, your gut is telling you something is physically wrong down below. It might ease your anxiety to book a visit with your doctor. They may begin screening for physical issues by ordering a CAT scan, MRI or ultrasound to look at your digestive system. If that proves futile, they may move on to a barium enema, sigmoidoscopy or endoscopy to rule out polyps, precancerous cells and other abnormalities.
You can’t put a price tag on the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re OK internally — but medical bills can also increase anxiety. It’s ultimately a choice only you can make.
Remember that the gut-brain superhighway runs both ways. Your brain might perceive unseen dangers that don’t reach your conscious awareness. Therefore, pay attention if a nervous stomach comes on suddenly and tune into your environment. Personal safety guru Gavin de Becker recommends not walking around feeling hypervigilant all the time but listening to your body’s innate danger signals. Don’t disregard what may be a genuine sign that it’s time to get out of Dodge.
What can you do to find relief if your stomach trouble arises from anxiety symptoms? The following techniques have proven effective in soothing your nervous system. Make them an integral part of your daily routine and see if your pain improves.
Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid when you get nervous. You may even hold your breath. Deep breathing tells your parasympathetic nervous system, “It’s OK. Everything’s fine, and you can resume normal functioning.” You can use dozens of techniques, but perhaps the easiest is to inhale for five counts and exhale the same length, placing your hands on your chest and belly and feeling them rise and fall.
Prolonged stress and anxiety can prompt physical changes in your brain, like shrinking your hippocampus. That’s the area of your mind responsible for determining if something merits your attention, but it gets smaller when bombarded with constant threats. Studies show that meditation can increase hippocampal volume, helping repair the damage.
Yoga helps repair the structural changes in your brain arising from prolonged stress. It also uses gentle movement to mitigate your cortisol levels, a stress hormone that often goes into overdrive when you experience ongoing pressure.
Movement also boosts levels of positive neurotransmitters like serotonin. It stimulates juicy endorphins to help you feel better and activates your endocannabinoid system. You could give a gentle Hatha or restorative class a try.
Scientists have learned a lot about the link between anxiety and stomach problems. They know that your brain and gut “talk,” and those messages can influence how you feel.
If tummy trouble is one of your anxiety symptoms, use the above techniques to feel better. Seek medical attention if your symptoms don’t abate, and remember to take your gut instincts seriously.