Anxiety is a complex disorder, and one that can have a profound effect on one’s body, and not just the mind. The stress that anxiety puts on your body can lead to a host of different issues. One of the more common amongst them is stomach pain.
Stomach pain, stomach cramping, and intestinal discomfort that is hard to describe can all be the result of persistent anxiety.
Diagnosing Anxiety Stomach Pain
Stomach pain caused by anxiety is difficult for doctors to diagnose because the pain and indigestion is still a real physical response – the same type of response from your body that would occur if you had a physical or organic health issue.
If the stomach pain is severe or accompanied by fever or other symptoms, it's certainly a good idea to visit a doctor. But anxiety can genuinely cause stomach pain in a way that can leads to indigestion and physical pain.
Examples of Anxiety-Related Stomach Issues
There are numerous issues caused by anxiety that could cause various types of discomfort in the abdomen. Some examples are:
- Abdominal Tension Stress tends to cause a great deal of tension in the abdomen. That tension can tire out abdominal muscles and cause an internal feeling of discomfort.
- Digestion Stress affects hormone levels, and hormones are used to aid digestion. When you're stressed, it can lead to hormonal imbalance resulting in indigestion that may lead to bloating, intestinal pain, and more.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome Anxiety has been linked as one of the most likely causes of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. IBS occurs when your body’s digestive system is functioning poorly without a definite underlying cause; it can cause altered bowel movements and abdominal discomfort. .
Anxiety also releases stress hormone (cortisol), which causes the body to produce extra levels of stomach acid. That acidity causes the lining of the esophagus to become irritated, and this can lead to stomach pain, nausea and vomiting, and in severe cases, stress-induced ulcers. These are just a few of the ways that anxiety can cause some type of pain or negative stomach sensations.
Can Stress Cause Stomach Pain?
Anxiety and stress are closely related. But they are technically different conditions. It is possible to experience a significant amount of stress without experiencing anxiety. Yet the causes of stomach pain from stress are similar. Muscle tension, digestive issues - all of these are also caused by stress and may contribute to stomach pain.
How Do I Know if It's Anxiety and Not an Ulcer?
It's not uncommon to find yourself concerned that your struggle with stomach pain is not from anxiety or stress at all. For example, you may find yourself concerned that instead of anxiety, what you are really struggling with is an ulcer.
Only a doctor can diagnose whether or not your pain is from an ulcer, but there are some clues. The clearest signal is if you have any blood in your stool or acid burps (if you also have acid reflux). That's often a clear sign of an ulcer. Also, if the pain or discomfort tends to occur after eating and isn't related to a similar condition, GERD (heartburn/acid reflux), it's possible you may have an ulcer.
Yet, even that tends to be a bit more complicated. First, there is some evidence that ulcers can be caused by long term stress and anxiety. The acids in the stomach break down the gastric or intestinal lining and cause open wounds that may harm your health.
Stomach Pain and Long Term Health
Because of the extra acids in your stomach and the changes to the way your body processes nutrients, the stomach pain from anxiety can actually be a problem if left untreated. Ulcers are just one example. Some people experience heartburn from anxiety, and others eat less often giving their body fewer nutrients.
The stomach pain from anxiety and stress is rarely dangerous, but it is still important and a good idea 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 at any time – 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.
Are There Foods That Reduce Stomach Pain?
Anxiety related stomach pain is not usually the result of your diet (although there are some diet and sedentary lifestyles may increase the risk of anxiety), so there aren't necessarily any dietary changes that can help reduce stomach pain.
That said, those with panic attacks are more prone to experiencing more severe stomach discomfort, 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 severe anxiety are prone to what's known as "over-sensitization." That means that they are more likely to notice and feel smaller, normal changes in the body, and these can trigger an anxiety attack. So if your diet does contain foods that cause you gas, stomach discomfort, or mild indigestion, it may be best to avoid them because the slight amount of discomfort could feel worse than it should, and may trigger a panic attack.
That's why healthy eating in those that get stomach pain with anxiety is important. Make sure you're getting:
- Whole-Grain Carbohydrates
Also, if there is stress-induced hyperacidity, then taking dairy products and non-spicy foods is recommended. In moderate amounts, over-the-counter antacids may be needed as well.
In addition, if possible, try to avoid eating until you're too full. Those with severe anxiety sometimes interpret the "full" feeling as pain, and this could trigger a panic attack and further pain.
Wide Range of Symptoms
One of the more amazing issues with some types of anxiety disorder is the way that they change sensations in our body. For example, for many, feeling full is a nice feeling. However, it can lead to a variety of natural body sensations, including:
- Feeling lightheaded
- Slight stomach discomfort
In those without anxiety, these are natural. In people suffering some some degree of anxiety, those sensations feel much more pronounced and can trigger a full-blown panic attack.
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 as a result based on the acids in your stomach and the foods you've already eaten. If you have stomach pain as a result of 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.