Anxiety is a shockingly complex disorder, and one can completely change your body's chemistry. The stress that anxiety puts on your body can lead to a host of different issues. One of the most common is stomach pain.
Stomach pain, stomach cramping, and intestinal discomfort that is hard to describe can all be the result of persistent anxiety. In fact, there are even some health conditions that are anxiety based.
Is Anxiety Causing Stomach Pain?
Stomach pain often occurs when you have a virus, or when you've eaten something that isn't sitting well. But stomach pain may be the result of anxiety, especially if that anxiety causes a great deal of stress or tension.
Stomach pain is more common in severe anxiety, so take our free 7 minute anxiety test to see your anxiety severity, find out if stomach pain is a symptom, and learn how to treat it.
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 health issue.
I developed an anxiety test a while back to help people understand their anxiety better, as well as how to treat it. So if you haven't already, take the 7-minute test right now.
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 not just mimics – but actually _causes_ some digestion and pain problems.
Examples of Anxiety-Related Stomach Issues
There are numerous issues caused by anxiety that could affect the sensations in your stomach. 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 squeeze organs in a way that creates a feeling of ache or pain.
- Digestion Stress affects hormone levels, and hormones are used to aid digestion. When you're stressed, your body's hormones start to cause your digestion to suffer, which 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 gastrointestinal system is no longer processing foods correctly, and it can cause stomach discomfort even without anxiety present.
Anxiety also releases epinephrine, 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 not only stomach pain but also nausea and vomiting. 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 hints. 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 exactly 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 bloating which can cause its own 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 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, those are a natural feeling. In those with some types 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.
In general, the only true way to cure stomach pain is to cure your anxiety. In the past, when I've worked with people that suffer from stomach pain, I start them off with this anxiety test I developed to figure out what types of anxiety they're suffering from and get to the root cause of how their anxiety is affecting them. So if you want to reduce your stomach pain, take my anxiety test now.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 22, 2018.