Stomach cramps can be very painful - so painful they can stop you in your tracks. While not everyone experiences severe stomach cramps with anxiety, cramping does appear to be a fairly common symptom, and as such it's not uncommon to find that yourself suffering from stomach cramps, especially at the height of your anxiety.
These cramps can be difficult to control when they start, because the causes are often based on automatic processes. Below, we'll explore the cause and effects of anxiety cramps.
Stomach Cramps = Anxiety?
How do you know if your stomach cramps are the result of your anxiety symptoms? You examine your other symptoms together and see what they mean. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more.
Cramps at the Height of Your Symptoms
Stomach cramps can be a confusing issue, because they may not be directly linked to anxiety, but rather a secondary problem due to a separate anxiety symptom. Some people experience these cramps when their anxiety is at its worst. Others may experience these cramps at random without necessarily experiencing much anxiety at the time.
It's important that you look at your anxiety as a whole, not just individual parts. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to get an anxiety profile that will give you greater tools for understanding these symptoms.
Anxiety Stomach Cramp Causes
Stomach cramps are a form of abdominal pain that is rarely mild or dull. Often they are painful and noticeable enough that they may cause you to feel as though you need to bend forward, leading to visible discomfort.
Cramps may be due to any number of factors. Some likely causes include:
Anxiety has a tendency to affect digestion, and can lead to poor digestive health. This may affect you not only during periods of anxiety, but also afterward. These types of stomach cramps related to gas, bloating, and general pains that come from food moving poorly down the intestines. The cramps themselves are caused by these digestive issues, but anxiety and stress are what creates poor digestion initially.
In an article published at Harvard Medical School entitled "Stress and the Gut," Dr. Michael Miller discusses this idea that the brain shuts down normal digestion function as a response to fear. Normally this response is actually healthy. When faced with a dangerous situation, you want all of your physical and mental resources to move to areas that are needed to help you fight or flee. Your digestion is temporarily less important.
But when you suffer from anxiety, your fight or flight system is activated at a low level for a considerable period of time. That causes long term digestive problems that lead to significant cramping, and may get worse during periods of intense stress and anxiety.
Anxiety can also create muscle tension, and some people experience that muscle tension in the stomach. Often it "feels" like muscle tension and is not necessarily described as "cramps" but the pain tends to be in the same place, and sometimes that tension can lead to spasms, also known as "cramping."
In some cases anxiety may not be causing your cramping, but it may cause other issues to become worse. Studies have consistently shown that those that experience profound stress often show a worsening of their previous gastrointestinal problems. These may be problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, such as mild dehydration or eating a "gassy" meal, but then when you suffer from anxiety as well the symptoms may become more severe, thus leading to more pain than you would experience without anxiety.
It should also be noted that anxiety itself can make natural pain and discomfort more pronounced, because those with anxiety often suffer from an "over-sensitivity" to discomforts. When you have anxiety, you may find that any discomfort, no matter how small, seems to attract your immediate attention, and when it does it becomes something you cannot ignore, which in some cases can make the symptoms "feel" worse.
The two conditions can also become a cycle. Those with severe stomach cramps often start to develop stress and anxiety. Eventually that stress and anxiety starts to create more stomach cramps. The two become a combined cycle that can be frustrating and long term.
Controlling Stress and Anxiety Stomach Cramps
Because these stomach cramps appear to be more digestion related than anxiety related (even though anxiety is what caused the digestion issues), their treatments tend to be similar to what you would do if you had any digestion issues, including:
- Over the Counter Medications Antigas medications, along with antacids and other common OTC treatments for digestive health problems are a fine choice for those that find themselves suffering. These treatments should not be taken unnecessarily, but there is generally no harm in using digestive medications for your stomach cramps.
- Drink Water Drinking water is also very important. Dehydration can actually cause stomach cramping, and water itself has a slight cooling effect on the stomach. Make sure that you're drinking enough water during the day and consider a glass of water if you're cramping.
- Eat Easy to Digest Foods Digestion is still digestion, and easier to digest (healthier) foods are going to improve your ability to control the cramps. Consider whole grains, fiber, proteins, and other healthy foods to ensure that you're putting the least amount of stress on your digestive tract as possible.
None of these deal with the underlying issue of anxiety, but they are tools that can reduce the likelihood of experiencing cramps and possibly improve your ability to cope with them in the future.
Afterward, you'll still need to make sure that you're making smart decisions with your anxiety. Start by taking my free anxiety test. It'll give you greater information about what you can do to control your anxiety forever.
Stress and the Sensitive Gut. http://www.health.harvard.edu. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2013.
Suarez K, et al. Psychological Stress and Self-Reported Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders,The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (March 2010): Vol. 198, No. 3, pp. 226-29.