Anxiety is a complex disorder and one that can have a profound effect on one’s body, mind, and daily life. The stress that anxiety puts on your body can lead to various different issues, including those relating to the digestive system. One of the more common symptoms is stomach pain.
Upset stomach, stomach cramping, and intestinal discomfort that are hard to describe can all result from persistent anxiety - you may be experiencing nervous stomach symptoms.
What Is Anxiety and How Can It Cause Stomach Pain?
Anxiety is a natural response to stressful situations. When you perceive a scenario as stressful or dangerous, your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
‘Fight or flight’ mode involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the branch of your nervous system that plays a crucial role in the stress response. This triggers a whole host of physiological symptoms that prepare your body to fight the threat or flee from it. These bodily changes include:
- Release of Stress Hormones: The body secretes stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This increases your blood pressure.
- Racing Thoughts: Your thinking speed quickens, helping you to make quick-fire decisions to keep yourself safe.
- Breathing Rate Increases: Your breathing becomes quicker and shallower; you breathe into your chest rather than your lungs, which helps increase the oxygen concentrations in your muscles.
- Heart Beat Quickens: Your heart beats quicker when under threat, which helps pump blood around the body.
- Muscle Tension: Muscles begin to tense all over the body, preparing you to run away or fight.
- Hyperawareness: Activation of the stress response causes your vision to become more acute, fine-tuning your senses to pay attention to the dangers around you.
Alongside other symptoms, the fight or flight response also causes stomach symptoms. It may make you feel nauseous or experience ‘butterflies’ as the blood shifts away from the digestive system towards the arm and leg muscles. However, this isn’t the only way stress and anxiety can impact the stomach.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The brain shares an intimate connection with the stomach through the gut-brain axis. It’s a two-way connection linking nerves, hormones, and gut flora. The enteric nervous system (ENS), a key component of the brain-gut connection, is often referred to as the ‘second brain.’ Within the ENS, you have millions of nerve connections that regulate digestion.
The ENS is connected to the nervous system, which is, of course, connected to the brain. Therefore, when a change occurs in the brain, it affects the gut and vice versa.
When you experience stress, your body releases hormones and neurotransmitters, which travel to the gut and affect how your stomach and intestines transfer waste through the body, known as gut motility. Stress levels can also influence gut bacteria, causing imbalances that can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort if you experience too much stress.
As you can see, it’s very plausible that your anxiety may be causing your digestive problems.
Examples of Anxiety-Related Stomach Issues
Numerous health concerns are caused by anxiety. These can lead to various types of digestive system symptoms. Some examples are:
- Abdominal Tension: Stress tends to cause a great deal of abdominal tension. That tension can tire out abdominal muscles and cause an internal feeling of discomfort.
- Indigestion: Stress affects hormone levels, and hormones are used to aid digestion. Stress can lead to hormonal imbalance, resulting in indigestion that may lead to bloating, intestinal pain, and more.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Anxiety is one of the most likely causes of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS). IBS occurs when your body’s digestive system functions poorly without a definitive underlying cause. Health conditions like IBS can cause altered bowel movements and abdominal discomfort.
Anxiety also triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol. This causes the body to produce extra levels of stomach acid. This acidity irritates the esophagus lining, leading to belly pain, nausea, vomiting, and in severe cases, stress-induced ulcers.
These are just a few ways that anxiety can cause pain or adverse symptoms in the digestive system.
Can Stress Cause Stomach Pain?
You may be asking: what about stress? While anxiety and stress are closely related, they’re different phenomena.
Stress vs. Anxiety: What’s the Difference?
Anxiety and stress are part of the fight or flight response - they help your body react to danger. However, there are some key differences between the two:
- Stress is short-term, whereas anxiety can linger, even when you’re no longer under threat.
- Stress always occurs in response to an actual threat, whereas anxiety can happen because you have perceived or ‘imagined’ a threat. Therefore, on occasion, you may not even be able to identify the danger that’s causing your anxiety.
- While symptoms of stress are dizziness, loneliness, nausea, anxious thoughts, unhappiness, overwhelm, and irritability, symptoms of anxiety include restlessness, tension, sweating, a sense of dread, and nervousness.
Stress and anxiety also have some overlapping symptoms:
- Fast heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Constipation or diarrhea
It’s possible to experience a significant amount of stress without experiencing anxiety. Yet the causes of belly pain from stress are similar.
How Do I Know if It’s Anxiety and Not an Ulcer?
You may worry that your stomach pain has a more severe underlying cause, not a result of anxiety or stress. It’s common for those with stomach pain to fear that there’s something more serious going on, such as a stomach ulcer.
Only a doctor can offer advice, diagnosis, or treatment - while Healthline media websites may provide you with some guidance, your best bet is to speak to your doctor. They can tell you, for definite, why you are experiencing stomach problems. However, some clues will help you figure this out for yourself:
- Blood in Your Stool
If you’re seeing blood in your stool, this may be due to bleeding in the stomach. This might indicate stomach ulcers. You’re unlikely to experience this symptom as a result of anxiety or stress.
- Acid Reflux
Indigestion is a classic sign of stomach ulcers. This may be what’s causing the pain in your stomach region. You may also experience heartburn, so it can be challenging to decipher between this and stomach ulcers. However, the symptoms of a stomach ulcer also tend to cause dull pain in the abdomen, similar to the sensation of being hungry.
- Pain After Eating
Pain or discomfort after eating may be a sign of a stomach ulcer. However, it can also indicate other health conditions, such as GERD (heartburn/acid reflux), so you’ll need to check this with your doctor.
Stomach Pain and Long-Term Health
It’s essential to remember that chronic stress can also lead to stomach ulcers because of the extra stomach acid.
Because of the extra acid in your stomach and the changes in how your body processes nutrients, stomach pain from stress or anxiety can be a problem if left untreated. Ulcers are just one example. Some people experience heartburn from anxiety, and others eat less often, giving their bodies fewer nutrients.
The stomach pain from anxiety and stress is rarely dangerous, but it is still important to treat it because the effects on your long-term health, when left untreated, may be harder to manage.
When Is Stomach Pain Most Likely to Occur?
If you have anxiety, stomach pain can occur anytime – even when no anxiety is present. However, many people experience stomach pain during panic attacks.
The exact link between an anxiety attack and stomach pain is not clear, other than the fact that during a panic attack, your body is under a considerable amount of stress, and your hormones are often on overdrive. Also, those with anxiety attacks are prone to hyperventilation, which may lead to symptoms that create stomach pain.
How to Relieve Stomach Pain Symptoms
There isn’t necessarily a cure for the stomach pain symptoms themselves. When your body is under stress, your stomach tends to hurt based on the acids in your stomach and the foods you’ve already eaten. If you have stomach pain due to an anxiety attack, you may need to wait it out.
Water can help a little, however. So consider sipping cool (but not too cold) water. Antacids may also be beneficial in some cases, but if you have stomach pain often, you may not want to depend on antacid treatments.
Method #1 See a Doctor
Stomach pain caused by anxiety is difficult for doctors to diagnose because the pain and indigestion are still real physical responses – the same type of responses that would occur if you had any other physical health issue.
If the stomach pain is severe or accompanied by fever or other symptoms, it’s certainly a good idea to seek the medical expertise of a doctor.
Method #2 Natural Remedies
Some herbal remedies can help to ease the symptoms of a nervous stomach. Ginger root is an excellent natural remedy for nausea or when you’re feeling a little queasy. There are several ways you can make use of the remedial effects of ginger:
- Chew a small piece of root ginger
- Eat ginger candy
- Drink ginger ale (the real ginger ones!)
- Try ginger tea
Other effective antispasmodics that people often already have in their homes are peppermint, lemon balm, lavender, and spearmint.
These can help to ease stomach tension and spasms from anxiety, thus helping to reduce the likelihood of stomach upset, cramps, anxiety butterflies, and flatulence.
Essential oils also supposedly work wonders on anxiety. A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrates that oral consumption of lavender essential oil can effectively reduce anxiety symptoms. This study also suggests that massage with lavender oil and inhalation may reduce anxiety symptoms.
Method #3 Foods That Reduce Stomach Pain
An upset stomach from anxiety is not usually the result of your diet (although a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle may increase the risk of anxiety), there aren’t necessarily any dietary changes that can help reduce stomach pain.
However, those with panic attacks are more prone to experiencing more severe stomach pains, even when no anxiety is present. In other words, when you have panic attacks, it’s possible to have stomach pain even without a panic attack.
Also, those with anxiety attacks and acute anxiety are prone to what’s known as “over-sensitization.” That means that they are more likely to notice and feel smaller, normal body changes, which can trigger an anxiety attack. So if your diet contains foods that cause you gas, stomach discomfort, or mild indigestion, it may be best to avoid them because the slight discomfort could feel worse than it should and may trigger a panic attack.
That’s why healthy eating is important for those that get stomach pain from anxiety. Make sure you’re getting:
- Wholegrain carbohydrates
In addition, if possible, try to avoid eating until you’re too full. Those with severe anxiety sometimes interpret the “full” feeling as pain, which could trigger a panic attack and further pain.
Furthermore, diets containing more alcohol and caffeine can worsen or even cause stomach symptoms. Stay away from these if you want to improve your gut health and digestive problems.
Method #4 Alternative Techniques
You can also try reducing stress to treat your anxiety. If anxiety is the cause of your stomach pain, reducing your anxiety will target both symptoms at once - it’s a win-win!
If you are experiencing an anxiety disorder, another treatment method worth trying is seeing a mental health professional such as a counselor. They may be able to support you emotionally, helping you to identify the root cause of your anxiety so that you can combat the problem at the source. This can have multiple benefits, including improving your mental health.
Finally, physical activity can benefit your brain and gut - regular exercise can reduce your anxiety symptoms and improve gut bacteria, making it an excellent treatment method for stress-related stomach pain.
Stomach pain from anxiety can be caused by several stress-related issues, including abdominal tension, digestion issues, and irritable bowel. Although the stomach pain may be caused by anxiety, the acids in the stomach are still very real. There are ways to treat both your stomach discomfort and anxiety.