Ever wonder why you get “butterflies” in your stomach before doing something stressful? Or why you feel like your stomach is “tied in knots” after an argument? Ever had a meeting with a toilet that went longer than expected and it wasn’t caused by anything you ate? Stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Researchers have identified a powerful connection between the gut and the brain. Like the brain, the gut is full of nerves. It contains the largest area of nerves outside the brain with the digestive tract and the brain sharing many of the same nerve connections.
Whether it’s a single nerve-wracking event or chronic worry and stress over time, stress can exact a physical toll on your digestive system. When you are anxious, some of the hormones and chemicals released by your body enter your digestive tract, where they interfere with digestion. They have a negative effect on your gut flora (microorganisms that live in the digestive tract and aid digestion) and decrease antibody production. The resulting chemical imbalance can cause a number of gastrointestinal conditions.
Common stress-related gut symptoms and conditions include:
- stomach cramps
- loss of appetite
- unnatural hunger
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- and peptic ulcers
Once you suffer with one of these conditions, the condition itself can become a source of anxiety and greatly impact your quality of life. I have had many patients who experience diarrhea for example, who develop a fear having accidents in their pants which makes them afraid to leave their home or go certain places. If you experience stomach cramps or indigestion, you might become fearful of these symptoms causing you to limit where and what you eat which could impact your social life.
Six Tips for Reducing Stress and Anxiety
- Although stress is a normal part of life and impossible to avoid, there is good news. You can manage your stress so that it reduces its impact on your stomach. Here are six tips that can help you reduce stress AND the related tummy troubles.
- Take short breaks and breathe. When done right this can really help. Every couple of hours, stop what you’re doing and do one minute of slow, quiet deep breathing. You’ll be amazed at the results. Your breathing should be very slow, silent, and through your nose. Push your stomach out when you inhale and let it deflate as you exhale.
- Just say “no.” Trying to do everything and please everybody all the time is a surefire recipe for stress. Know your limits and when you’re close to reaching them, don’t accept additional responsibilities.
- Exercise or do yoga. Physical activity is a great way to reduce stress, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day. When you exercise your body releases chemicals called endorphins which interact with receptors in your brain and trigger a positive feeling in your body.
- Instead of stressing over things you can’t control focus on the things you can control, such as how you choose to react to problems. Your reaction is your choice, including how you react to your stomach issues. Accepting stomach problems will reduce your anxiety and curb your symptoms. Worrying about your stomach, only makes your symptoms worse.
- Listen to a guided relaxation exercise daily. You’ll not only feel relaxed while doing it, but most people also experience a sense of calm that lasts for hours afterwards.
Seek the help of a therapist who specializes in anxiety. It’s often too difficult to deal with chronic worry and complicated anxiety on your own. A skilled Cognitive Behavioral Therapist will know what to do. You can find a therapist at ADAA.org.
It takes effort to reduce stress and its impact on the stomach. These suggestions can work if you implement them correctly and if you make them a daily priority. However, expecting immediate results and 100% absence of symptoms will only increase your frustration and symptoms. Acceptance of some degree of stomach discomfort is important.
Finally, take a look at your diet. Certain foods are known to irritate the stomach. Consult a doctor and try the recommended medical treatments. Many stomach disorders cannot be resolved with stress reduction alone. You must address the biological, psychological and social aspects when trying to resolve gut related problems.
About the author:
Ken Goodman, LCSW, treats anxiety and OCD in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Anxiety Solution Series: Your Guide to Overcoming Panic, Worry, Compulsions and Fear, A Step-by-Step Self-help Audio Program., and Break Free from Anxiety, a coloring, self-help book for anxiety sufferers. Ken Goodman is an ADAA board member and Clinical Fellow. Visit his website.
Read Ken Goodman's other ADAA Blog Posts:
- How to Get Over It: Fear of Vomiting
- Health Anxiety: What It is and How to Beat It
- University of Fear and Anxiety: How to Pass your Freshman Year of College
- Fear of Driving
- Misophonia: Like Nails on a Chalkboard
Ken Goodman also hosts an ADAA webinar on "Overcoming the Fear of Vomiting." Watch the video on ADAA's YouTube channel.