When was the last time you had to sit for a major exam or face a life-defining moment? Aside from a number of physical indications of stress, you must have felt like you had butterflies in your stomach or as if your gut was tied in knots. This is a very common condition; it’s called anxiety stomach pain.
While your brain and stomach couldn't be more different, they do have a unique connection. As a result, things that you expect only to have a psychological impact may also produce symptoms in your body. In some cases, you may even feel it in your stomach, leading you to think you have another illness.
In this article, you'll learn about how the brain and stomach are connected. More importantly, you will also know whether stress is the main cause of your anxiety stomach pain.
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According to research, there is a lesser known nervous system in our gut that communicates with our brain, the enteric nervous system (ENS). Experts call it our “second brain.” It is a network of nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters that goes through the whole digestive tract and whose primary role is to control digestion.
The ENS keeps in constant contact with the brain. What goes on in your brain affects your gut health and vice versa. Think about eating something juicy, for example, and you will find that your stomach will already start releasing juices even before you get to the food.
Therefore, a nervous stomach can either be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.
Stress response and the gut
One of the core functions of your nervous system is to detect and trigger responses to threats. When you have high levels of stress or anxiety, your body will activate the release of noradrenaline, adrenalin, and cortisol into the bloodstream. Collectively, these stress hormones will trigger the “fight or flight” response.
Having a continuously elevated stress response can wreak havoc on your digestive tract lining. Other effects of a prolonged elevated stress response include:
Impaired immune functioning
Difficulty metabolizing glucose
Disrupted bowel contractions, which leads to increasing or reducing the frequency of your bathroom visits.
When you're stressed or anxious, normal physiological processes may be interpreted as pain. In addition, the balance of bacteria in your gut may be affected by stress, leading to discomfort and gastrointestinal distress.
For some people, having a nervous stomach is common. With others, it's a rare or one-off experience. While it's not a diagnosable condition, it's acknowledged by doctors. Its occurrence can be due to your mental health, emotional state, or gut health.
In most cases, a nervous stomach does not signify anything serious. When you have it, you may feel:
Cramping, churning, tightness, or knots in the stomach
“Butterflies” in the stomach feeling
Shivering, shaking, or twitching of muscles
The effects of gut stress can manifest in unique ways and all over the body. Other symptoms include:
On rare occasions, a nervous stomach may indicate something more serious at play. As such, it's good to be alert. Some of the signs that it may be something serious include:
Blood in the stool
Black tarry stools
Abnormal lab values (a sign of anemia)
If you notice any of these symptoms, visit a gastroenterologist for testing and diagnosis.
Generally, stomach pain is a symptom of something else. As such, stomach pain treatments often revolve around addressing other issues.
With anxiety stomach pain, however, treatment largely revolves around eliminating or managing stress and anxiousness to help reduce the impact of your stress response on your digestive tract.
The best way to do this is to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming you down. The quickest way to activate this system is to begin taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose and then exhaling slowly out through your mouth.
Some other precautions and treatment options that may help include the following:
1. Eat well
Along with your stress or anxiety, what you eat may make you more susceptible to having a nervous stomach. Try eating diets rich in fiber and drink a lot of water.
Also, to support your immune system, try scheduling your meals. Avoid processed foods and those with high sugar content. Aim for a diet that is 80% healthy whole foods and 20% in the “other” category.
2. Try herbal treatment
There are plenty of herbs known to be antispasmodics or can ease stomach pain. The best examples of this are peppermint, lemon balm, spearmint, and lavender. By reducing muscle spasms and tightening in the stomach, they help relieve flatulence, butterflies, and cramps.
If you're also experiencing some queasiness or nausea, chewing on a piece of ginger root may help. Alternatively, you can consume something made from it, such as ginger candy, ginger ale, or ginger tea.
As a long-term solution, try daily supplements with herbs known as adaptogens, such as ashwagandha or Rhodiola rosea, which help improve the way your body responds to stress.
3. Practice mindfulness, grounding techniques, and meditation
In many cases, stress and anxiety stem from things that are yet to happen or those beyond your control. Unfortunately, focusing on them also affects your ability to influence factors that you can control, thus piling on the pressure.
One way of managing stress and anxiety is to regain control over your thoughts. This will translate into a calming effect, allowing you to manage stress better. A great way of achieving this includes mental brain exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, grounding techniques, journaling, and meditation.
If you’re feeling down and stressed, one of the best ways of addressing it is stimulating your body to release endorphins. These are known as “feel-good hormones.” They are released through vigorous physical activity and can significantly improve your mood and mental state. Studies have found that exercise can reduce stress levels up to 40%.
Do your best to schedule regular workouts and choose activities you enjoy so you can keep stress and anxiety at bay.
While it may seem like an unlikely connection, your stomach and brain do have an intimate bond. As such, whenever something is wearing you down mentally, you may feel the effects in your stomach.
Take a proactive approach to managing stress. In doing so, you'll save yourself from the effects of a nervous stomach while protecting your psychological health.
Gut-Brain Connection | Cleveland Clinic
How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-Gut Connection | Anxiety & Depression Association of America
The Gut-Brain Connection | Harvard Health Publishing
Stress and Your Gut | GI Society
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