Nausea Due to Anxiety: Reasons, Causes and How To Get Rid of It
Anxiety is not just an emotional issue. It causes physical symptoms that can disrupt your ability to live a high-quality life. Treating anxiety is about reducing your stress and managing your physical symptoms so that your mental health doesn't hold you back.
We all feel sick to the stomach due to anxiety at points in our lives. However, when anxiety occurs for seemingly no reason, or if you feel anxious for a large proportion of the time, this may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of anxiety such as nausea can be unpredictable and present considerable barriers to enjoying your everyday life. If you find your stress gets worse at night, your nausea may even be preventing you from getting enough sleep.
Below, you'll find out how anxiety causes nausea, and what you can do to manage stress, nausea, and other symptoms.
Can Anxiety Cause Nausea?
Many factors can cause nausea. Although it's unclear exactly why this happens, it appears to be a bodily response to factors that irritate or disrupt the natural state. Did you eat too much? Nausea. Get an illness? Nausea. Spun around in a circle? Nausea.
Why Do We Get Nauseous?
The evolutionary purpose of nausea is self-protection. It's your body's way of notifying you that whatever you just did, the action you took, shouldn't be repeated.
Nausea is triggered by internal signals. These signals can come from all over the body — from the cerebral cortex to the chemoreceptor trigger zone, and even the peripheral and vestibular systems. The messages travel toward the brain stem, where they trigger a series of actions that lead to stomach symptoms (such as nausea), and the movement of stomach contents up the digestive tract, in a process commonly referred to as 'vomiting.'
When Anxiety Causes Nausea
Anxiety can cause nausea. The intensity of the sensation of sickness is largely related to the causes and types of anxiety you're experiencing, whether you have a general fear of your environment, known as a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or more social-specific anxiety, such as the case with a social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Not everyone will experience nausea, and it's not always severe - you may have minor stomach cramps or hints of nausea.
Other people may be physically sick due to their nausea. We've all seen those movie scenes where the main character experiences something truly frightening and their reaction to that fear is throwing up. They experience a shooting or barely survive a traumatic event, and the first thing they experience is nausea — nausea that leads to vomiting. Their fear is so pronounced that something is triggered in the body, making them feel sick.
Nausea is one of the most common anxiety symptoms. But why does it happen, and what can you do about it?
How Does Anxiety Cause Nausea?
Nausea from anxiety arises due to a variety of issues. In most people with anxiety, stress causes nausea. In others, the anxiety itself can lead to the development of nausea separately from the stress response.
A Natural Part of the Fight-or-Flight Response
Anxiety is a natural reaction, and in small doses, it's healthy. Some experts believe that our bodies evolved to trigger anxiety symptoms such as nausea when we are under threat or in danger.
When a person's anxiety is not related to a real danger, like when stress is triggered by a perceived threat, nausea can be especially distressing. We can be feeling nauseated even in the comfort of our safe beds! This is common with anxiety disorders such as panic disorder.
When faced with stress, the body goes into "fight or flight" mode. With this, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol (or "epinephrine"). These hormones set off a physiological response, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, dilating your pupils, and diverting blood to the limbs ready for you to run away or protect yourself.
This process also has an impact on the digestive system. Stress hormones alter the stomach lining and food digestion, taking blood away from the digestive system and inhibiting the digestion process. You may experience muscle tension in your abdomen, which can elicit nausea.
One thing about the gut is it harbors an abundance of neurotransmitter receptors that are strongly wired to the brain. It's getting easier to see how anxiety may cause anxiety, right?
You can find our article on anxiety and the endocrine system.
When Nausea Occurs Without Stress
Anxiety can cause stomach symptoms like nausea even without the presence of stress. Here's how:
Anxiety can make someone "hypersensitive" to their bodily sensations. When you become hypersensitive, a small amount of "normal" nausea that you otherwise could ignore can feel like severe nausea that is difficult to control.
Anxiety is a known trigger of and contributor toissues like motion sickness, so some people with anxiety tend to have worse nausea during car rides and similar movements.
The brain releases neurotransmitters that help trigger movement in your limbs, allow you to feel sensations and respond appropriately to the external environment. But anxiety can change the body's neurotransmitter levels. One neurotransmitter linked to anxiety is serotonin - as anxiety symptoms increase, serotonin levels reduce, and vice versa.
Serotonin also plays a role in the reactions of the gut. Thus, it is possible for changes in the neurotransmitter levels in the brain to trigger nausea in the gut. Due to this, doctors often prescribe Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs to those affected by anxiety-related nausea, as this increases the serotonin available to the body.
How to Cure Nausea Due to Anxiety
When nausea is brought about by anxiety, it's not dangerous. However, it's important to seek a doctor's medical expertise to identify whether underlying health conditions are causing your nausea. If it's linked to chronic anxiety or another mental illness, your doctor may be able to offer medication to help manage your stress.
Another option is talking therapies. A mental health professional can help you understand the reason for your anxiety and work towards lessening this problem, rather than just combatting the surface-level symptoms like nausea.
You can also try to fight anxiety symptoms on your own. Here's how:
Jogging is a powerful tool for fighting anxiety. It tires your muscles, reducing the amount of tension they put on your stomach. It also releases endorphins, "feel good" hormones that improve your mood. In addition, it depletes adrenaline, which can help control anxiety.
Deep breathing is one of several stress-reduction techniques effective at controlling the stress response. It involves taking slow, controlled breaths to get your heart and mind under control. You can find several different types of deep breathing exercises here.
Other relaxation techniques include progressive muscle relaxation and visualization. You can find out more about these methods here.
Light and Healthy Eating
Your nutrition doesn't necessarily affect your anxiety nausea. But it can affect the severity of your nausea. Heavy, fattening, unhealthy meals tend to lead to more nausea than healthy meals.
Slowly Sip Water
Like healthy eating, water can help keep your body nourished as it has no ingredients that would exacerbate your upset stomach. In addition, it's not uncommon for dehydration to lead to more anxiety, so it's important to replenish lost fluids to calm your anxiety. Just make sure you don't drink too much water too fast or you may get some mild nausea; slow sips are the best way.
Tums, peppermint, and Pepto-Bismol may also provide temporary relief from anxiety-related nausea. They can be used for nausea that occurs on rare occasions but should not be used by those who experience regular, persistent nausea due to anxiety. And while this method will work in the short term, it doesn't get to the root cause of the problem, so won't be effective long term.
Fighting anxiety is a long-term issue. If you experience a great deal of anxiety at home, at work, at school, or in social situations, then you need to learn effective ways of controlling it. Once you cope with your anxiety, the likelihood of nausea will decrease.
Nausea can be caused by multiple issues that may or may not be related to anxiety, including changes in neurotransmitter levels and motion sickness. Anxiety can also make a person more sensitive to feelings of nausea, so mild nausea feels more intense. Walking, drinking water slowly, and light eating can be helpful, but anxiety reduction will be the only way to stop anxiety-related nausea.