The Connection Between Anxiety And Your Stomach Is Real — Here's How It Works

Photo: Leszek Glasner / Shutterstock
woman with stomach pain

Does the thought of an unpleasant future event sometimes leave you with a stomach ache?

Can you remember an upcoming bill sending you running for the toilet?

What about when a boss or partner says, “We’ve got to talk?” Have words like that ever hit you like a punch in the gut?

If so, you are experiencing the very real connection between anxiety and stomach issues. 

Think of feeling butterflies in your stomach. It's not just a saying. Our language reflects the fact that many emotions, including anxiety, are felt in the digestive system or gi tract.  

The connection between anxiety and stomach issues results not only in big and obvious gut reactionsbut is also implicated in more subtle and long-lasting problems.

These include gi conditions like ongoing nausea; diarrhea or constipation; stomach pain, cramping, or bloating; persistent feelings of hunger or lack of appetite unrelated to physical needs; and even medical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

The good news is that understanding how this connection works can help you resolve both anxiety and digestive distress. 

RELATED: How To Get Rid Of Painful Gas And Bloating — Fast

How anxiety and stomach issues are connected

It’s natural to think of our organs as separate body parts disconnected from mental concerns, but that isn’t how our body actually works.

Instead, we are a single organism with intelligence throughout. We have a brain in our head of course, but we also have a “gut-brain” located in our enteric (digestive) nervous system. 

In a process known as “interoception,” the brain in our head is constantly receiving and sending messages to and from the rest of our body.

When our body detects danger, such as in anxiety, it begins to mobilize for fight or flight. Driven by the release of a host of hormones and neurotransmitters, our attention narrows, senses heighten, and the body shuts down non-essential activities, including digestion. 

It’s important to understand that this is your body’s automatic way of protecting you from danger. It’s not "all in your head,” and it’s not under your conscious control.

Anxiety is a feature, not a bug

Human physiology evolved to help us escape an imminent threat. In the past there were only two outcomes: we successfully evaded the threat or we became tiger lunch.

Upon successful escape, we were able to then relax, regain equilibrium, repair, and rebuild. But modern life presents several new problems to contend with.

The first is that today’s threats are not so short-lived. We don’t escape our boss or our bills in the same way our ancestors escaped predators.

Your job problems, money and finance worries, and relationship issues aren’t one and done. Often they remain a constant source of worry. 

The second problem arises from the fact that our human brain has a greater ability to imagine the future than other life forms.

This ability to foresee potential danger is one of the important upgrades of our human brain. It’s why your cat isn’t saving for retirement and your dog isn’t worried about being out of shape.

But in our complicated modern world, the ability to think further into the future gives us many more things to worry about. 

What this means is that it’s not just you. There are differences based on inherited temperament and past experience, but human brains are inherently anxious.

Think of it this way — our ancestors were likely the ones who lived cautiously, staying alive long enough to mate, rather than carefree people who took a lot of unnecessary risks. 

RELATED: How To Tell If Your Anxious Feelings Are Actually An Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety can lead to chronic stress

Anxiety evolved because it’s beneficial, but too much anxiety can become detrimental. It can keep your mind from more productive pursuits, and make it harder for you to expose yourself to new experiences and people.

Because of the mind/body connection, anxiety also stresses the body.

The reason is that when we feel anxious we are anticipating possible future threatening circumstances. Yet because the threat isn’t actually present, the cycle of threat, response, and resolution cannot be completed.

That is, we can’t come to a resolution (win the fight or successfully escape) in order to then be able to relax and recover. 

This long-term activation of the fight or flight physiology is known as chronic stress, and it wears out the body.

In addition to digestive distress and abdominal pain, chronic stress impacts our sleep, our ability to heal, the function of our immune system, and it can lead to increased pain overall.

Even the most perfect diet in the world can’t heal your body if you can’t digest and metabolize the nutrients.

Additionally, in a state of chronic stress, our bodies tend to hold onto weight.

Luckily, the mind/body connection of anxiety provides us with good tools to ease both the conscious anxious feelings and the digestive distress they cause. 

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RELATED: Why Chronic Stress Is So Harmful To Your Body — And Relationship

Using the body to relax the mind

As anyone who has ever yelled “calm down” (or had it yelled at them) can attest, you can’t just order the mind to stop worrying. But by relaxing the body, the mind can follow.

Breathing is the fastest route to relaxation. This is because the out breath stimulates the parasympathetic (relaxation) branch of the nervous system.

By focusing your mind on your breath you are able to practice both sides of the equation — body and mind relaxation. 

Using your senses is another way to bring attention to the present and lull your body into a relaxed state.

Try noticing and counting the many things around you that you can see, hear, smell, or touch. You can do both of these practices in any environment and while stationary or walking.

Bringing attention to your heartbeat or body parts helps you stay present in your body. Going either top-down or bottom-up, bring attention to each part, moving or stretching it while focusing on the feeling.

Are your arches tight or sore? Your ankles? Knees? Wiggle, stretch or relax each part as you go, and if possible end with any full-body stretch that feels good.

Another extremely powerful practice for relaxation is to invoke positive emotions. A good one for this purpose is gratitude.

By turning your attention to the things you are grateful for, you bring yourself out of worry and into relaxation. Gratitude practice, such as prayer or other thankfulness, is especially important before eating.

These are all practices of mindfulness and embodiment. Mindfulness brings you to the present, taking the focus off of future worries or past regrets. Embodiment allows you to live in your body in order to stay grounded and present.

You don’t need to devote hours to this. A small amount goes a long way. Even a few minutes of deep relaxation can jump-start the body’s processes of recovery and healing.

Anxiety is normal, natural, and protective. By understanding the connection between anxiety and stomach issues, we can receive the benefits of anxiety while avoiding the downside.

RELATED: 6 Essential Skills That'll Help You Practice Mindfulness Like A True Zen Master

Lisa Newman, MAPP is a positive psychology practitioner and health coach specializing in eating behavior and body acceptance. She is a certified mind-body eating coach and certified intuitive eating counselor. You can find out more at WomenEat.com