Does this sound familiar: you’ve got an important deadline or event coming up and your pretty worked up about it; your mind races at times (or all the time), you find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time (or at all) and your stomach is in knots…If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
Many people experience stomach pain along with anxiety; most accept it as normal or something they have to deal with. However, once you understand why anxiety hurts your stomach, you can do something to correct it. And you can find relief in a very unlikely place.
When Anxiety Affects Your Stomach, Soothe Your GI Tract
Anxiety in relation to stress is usually caused by one of two mechanisms: (1) changes in neurotransmitter levels and/or (2) changes in hormone levels due to an adrenal response. The adrenal glands are often referred to as our ‘fight-or-flight’ organs because they prepare the body to deal with stress. They do so by producing chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters) that direct blood and nutrients to the muscles and brain to get you ready to deal with whatever is in front of you. However, this takes blood flow away from the stomach and GI tract, which can cause stomach pain with stress and/or anxiety.
In addition, severe acute and/or chronic stress can cause abrupt changes in neurotransmitter levels – especially in serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. Normally, a person with anxiety is producing a lot more of the excitatory neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine and/or epinephrine) to prepare them for whatever they have to do. However, this change can cause an abrupt decrease in serotonin. Since approximately 90-95% of the serotonin in your body is stored in your GI tract, this decrease can cause a wide variety of GI symptoms, including stomach pain, urgency, diarrhea and indigestion.
For most people, anxiety causes stomach pain, which then increases the person’s anxiety, which leads to more stomach pain. This can be a vicious cycle and is why anxiety hurts the stomach and GI tract. However, we can break the cycle by supporting not only a proper adrenal response, but also by soothing your GI tract.
Supporting Your Adrenals
The easiest and one of the most effective ways to support your adrenals is through deep breathing. Taking deep breaths throughout the day not only releases tension and calms the mind, it helps eliminate acids from your body that make you hurt more. Research shows that deep breathing can help calm your anxiety as well as lead to a more balanced adrenal response in the future, meaning if you practice deep breathing on a regular basis, over time you won’t get so stressed out when you are hit with stressful events.
In addition, there are botanicals called adaptogens that can help the body more effectively deal with stress by supporting a balanced adrenal response. If you feel anxious, worried or experience a racing mind with stress, herbs and nutrients such as ashwagandha, skullcap, Siberian ginseng, rhodiola and L-theanine can help promote a sense of calm and allow you to more effectively deal with stress (we recommend and use a product called AdreneVive that incorporates all of these).
Soothing the GI Tract
Another powerful technique you can use to decrease your anxiety is to soothe your GI tract. Deep breathing will help here as well, as will chewing your food until it is a liquid before swallowing, eating only when you are hungry and eating smaller meals. Nature’s medicine cabinet can also help. Many people can find relief from taking or even smelling peppermint oil, lavender oil and/or consuming chamomile (either as n extract or as a tea). All of these herbs will soothe the GI tract and help address one of the main reasons why anxiety hurts your stomach, which will decrease your anxiety.
Address the Cause to Find a Solution
You can reduce and likely eliminate stomach pain when you get stressed; you can likely even reduce or eliminate your anxiety when stressful events happen, but it doesn’t happen without help. Use deep breathing exercises on a daily basis (whether you are stressed out or not) and use the botanicals above to help address the reasons why anxiety hurts your stomach and you will soon be on your way to a more effective (and much more pleasant!) you.