Anxiety is not just an emotional issue. Anxiety causes physical symptoms that can disrupt your ability to live a high quality of life. Treating anxiety is not just about controlling your stress, but also managing how your mind and body are affected by the symptoms.
Nausea is a common anxiety symptom. It involves an uncomfortable feeling of sickness in the stomach that can make you feel as if you might vomit. Nausea from anxiety can be a considerable barrier to your ability to deal with your hectic schedule. Like other symptoms of anxiety, nausea can be unpredictable, and affect your ability to perform at your best at home, work, school, and in your relationships with your friends and family.
Can Anxiety Cause Nausea?
Many different things can lead to nausea. We don't know exactly why this happens but it appears to be a bodily response to something that irritates or disrupts the natural state. Eat too much? Nausea. Get an illness? Nausea. Spin around in a circle? Nausea. Not get enough sleep? Nausea. Run too fast? Nausea. Certain illnesses are associated with nausea and it also often accompanies feelings of disgust.
The evolutionary purpose of nausea is thought to be to both notify and prevent the person from repeating whatever it was they just did. Although unexplained nausea is possible, generally nausea is your body’s way of telling you that it doesn’t like something that occurred or the results of whatever that action may have been.
Nausea is triggered by internal signals. These signals can come from all over the body - from the cerebral cortex to the chemoreceptor trigger zone to the peripheral and vestibular systems -. The messages travels towards the brain stem where they trigger a series of actions that ultimately lead to feelings of nausea and the movement of the contents of the stomach up the digestive tract.
It should come as little surprise that anxiety can cause nausea as well. Its intensity is largely related to the causes and types of anxiety you're experiencing. Not everyone will experience nausea, but those that do may have nausea that ranges from mild to severe.
We've all seen those movie scenes where the main character experiences something truly frightening and their reaction to that fear is to throw up. They experience a shooting, or they barely survive a traumatic event, and the first thing they experience is nausea - nausea that may even lead to vomiting. Their fear is so pronounced that something is triggered in the body that makes them feel sick.
It is one of the most common anxiety symptoms. But why does it happen and what can you do about it?
What Causes Nausea From Anxiety?
Anxiety related nausea comes from a variety of different issues.
For most people with anxiety, the nausea is caused by stress. For others, the anxiety itself can lead to the development of nausea separate to the stress response.
How Stress Causes Nausea - A Natural Part of the Fight and Flight Response
Anxiety is a natural reaction, and in small doses, it's actually healthy. Some of the symptoms of anxiety - including nausea - are thought to have developed to tell your brain that there is something dangerous or new so that you make a smart decision with your next action.
But when under stress without any present danger, that nausea can be especially distressing. When faced with stress, the body goes into "fight or flight mode", triggering the autonomic nervous system - specifically activating the sympathetic nervous system and inhibiting the parasympathetic nervous system.
This action then releases a hormone called epinephrine, which is often referred to as "adrenaline." Additional stress may also trigger other adrenal related hormones. Those hormones alter the stomach lining, alter food digestion, take blood away from the digestive system, cause hyperventilation (which over-oxygenates the bloodstream), dizziness, and more.
Stress can also cause muscle tension in your abdomen, and that added tension may be squeezing your stomach in a way that leads to feeling nauseated. The gut is also rich is neurotransmitter receptors and very connected to the brain. It is possible that the way anxiety alters neurotransmitter levels in the brain may affect the gut as well.
Finally, during “fight or flight” digestion is inhibited, which also may affect how you process food and stomach acid and possibly lead to nausea.
How Anxiety Causes Nausea
Stress and anxiety are often linked, as anxiety itself can be both caused by stress and create stress. But there are also ways that anxiety itself can lead to nausea in a way that is separate from stress, including:
- Anxiety can make someone "hypersensitive" to the way their body feels. Which means they give more attention to the body. When a person becomes 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 and contributor towards issues like motion sickness, so some people with anxiety tend to have worse nausea during car rides and other similar movements.
- Anxiety may change the neurotransmitter levels in the body, like serotonin. Serotonin also plays a role in the reactions of the gut. Thus, it is possible that the changes of these neurotransmitters in the brain are also triggering the nausea signals in the gut.
Of course, anxiety itself also causes and is caused by stress, so all of the stress responses are common with those that have frequent or chronic anxiety.
How to Cure Anxiety Nausea
In the case of nausea from anxiety, the nausea itself isn't dangerous. As long as you have ruled out other health problems, and your doctor or therapist has confirmed that anxiety is causing your nausea, it is helpful to know that your body is not in any serious danger. Instead, to control your nausea, you need to manage your anxiety. Chances are your body is experiencing a great deal of stress related to persistent anxiety.
Several strategies for fighting anxiety include:
- Jogging - jogging is a powerful tool for fighting anxiety. It tires your muscles, which relax the amount of tension that your muscles put on your stomach, and it releases endorphins: "feel good" hormones that improve mood. It also regulates hormones and depletes adrenaline, which can help control anxiety.
- Deep Breathing - deep breathing is one of several stress reduction techniques that are effective for controlling the response to stress. Deep breathing involves taking slow, controlled breaths in order to get your heart and mind under control. One method is to sit in a chair and breathe in slowly through your nose for 5 seconds (aiming to breathe into your belly), holding for 4 seconds, and then breathing out through pursed lips slowly (7 seconds is ideal). Repeat 10 times. Other relaxation techniques include progressive muscle relaxation and visualization.
- Light and Healthy Eating - your nutrition doesn't necessarily affect your anxiety nausea. But it can affect the severity of nausea. Heavy, fattening, unhealthy meals tend to lead to more nausea than healthy meals.
- Drink Water - like healthy eating, water can help keep your body nourished without any ingredients that exacerbate your upset stomach. In addition, it's not uncommon for dehydration to lead to more anxiety, so drinking water can actually be its own anxiety treatment. Just make sure you don’t drink too much water too fast, or you may also still have some mild nausea.
- OTC Medicines - tums, peppermint, and Pepto-Bismol may also provide temporary relief for anxiety-related nausea. They can be used for nausea that occurs on rare occasion, but should not be used by those that experience regular, persistent nausea from anxiety.
These are all quick strategies to reduce anxiety nausea. However, 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 solutions for controlling that anxiety. Once your anxiety is managed, the likelihood of nausea will decrease.