Can anxiety cause stomach problems?
Many people with anxiety find stomach upsets a common occurrence, they may occur prior to, during or after periods of anxiety, or they may occur continuously alongside a long-term stomach condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
This blog post will be exploring stomach pain and anxiety and the ways in which they may intertwine. Towards the end of the post there will also be information and techniques on ways to calm anxiety related stomach problems.
Can anxiety cause stomach pain and diarrhoea?
In a word, yes.
Anxiety can cause a variety of physiological symptoms due to the fight or flight response that is activated in times of stress. This is an evolutionary response that has helped us to survive dangerous situations in the past, our bodies are flooded with hormones such as adrenaline which allowed us to either fight the danger or escape the danger. In modern times, this flight or fight response is triggered by small non-life-threatening situations. These stressful situations may be due to work life, home life or due to anxiety.
The problem with low level stressful situations triggering the flight or fight response is that it puts strain on the body, prolonged activation of the fight or flight response can lead to several health complications including sleep troubles, weight gain and memory and concentration problems.
The flight or fight response can cause a range of physiological reactions including increased heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweating and digestive issues. These digestive issues can include increased activity of the digestive system, including increased colon activity; which may produce symptoms of stomach pain and diarrhoea.
Can stress cause stomach bloating?
In the same way that anxiety and stress can produce stomach pain and diarrhoea, stress can be responsible for some cases of stomach bloating. Whilst anxiety and stress can cause the digestive system to speed up, they can also pause the digestive process causing digestion to slow down, resulting in symptoms such as constipation and bloating.
Bloating is typically described as a feeling of fullness in the belly, usually caused by excess air or gas. It can be caused by a variety of anxiety and stress related factors such as hyperventilation (caused by excessive breathing) and digestive issues (as described above).
Bloating caused by stress and anxiety may take several hours to several days to sort itself out, there are some exercises and techniques that can be used to reduce the time and frequency that these digestive problems occur, these will be explored later in the article.
What does anxiety stomach pain feel like?
Everybody’s experiences of anxiety related stomach pain will differ. Some people may have a pre-existing stomach or digestive issue such as food intolerances or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), in this case anxiety related situations may cause an increase in frequency and severity of regular symptoms.
For people who do not have a pre-existing medical problem abdominal pains caused by anxiety can be varied; stomach pain, aches, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and cramping are just some of the stomach and digestive related consequences of anxiety. If your stomach pain frequently occurs during or after experiences of anxiety then it may be related to anxiety, if so the techniques and tools in this article may assist with your problems.
If you are unsure whether your stomach pains and digestive problems are caused by anxiety or whether they have a physical cause, a visit to your GP may be necessary. They will be able to advise on whether there may be a physical cause requiring medication for your digestive problems. Alternatively, they may determine that anxiety is contributing to your stomach issues in which case therapy for anxiety may assist you. It is better to be safe and check your symptoms with a medical professional before commencing any therapy to relieve stomach pains.
When should you be concerned about stomach pain?
If you are reading this article it is likely you or someone you know is suffering from stomach pain and anxiety. Any pain that disrupts your day to day life needs to be addressed, even if you believe that you have got used to the pain and have accepted it as part of your life.
If you are experiencing severe pain, or you feel that the stomach pains may be suspicious then contacting your GP or a medical professional is the safest way to approach concerning stomach pain. If a medical professional finds no physical cause and agrees that the stomach pain originates from anxiety, then utilising the tools and techniques outlined below would be a safe way to try and resolve some of your stomach pain.
How to get rid of anxiety in stomach
Unfortunately, if you are suffering from anxiety related stomach pains and complications, there is no way to completely eradicate or get rid of the stomach pains without resolving the anxiety problems. The symptoms of anxiety related stomach problems can be addressed and improved with a variety of methods outlined in the section below, however they cannot be got rid of completely.
To get rid of anxiety related stomach pains completely you would need to address your anxiety, preferably with the help of a qualified, licenced psychologist. This can be in person or online, if you are interested in addressing your anxiety online then feel free to contact us using the button below and a member of the team will get back to you with information on how we can help you address your anxiety and its related symptoms.
How to calm a nervous stomach
As we have discussed, anxiety and a nervous stomach are closely linked. The best way to calm your nervous stomach in the short term is to tackle your anxiety. There are several tips and techniques you can use to reduce your anxiety both in the short term and long term.
Short term solutions for anxiety
There are several breathing exercises and techniques that can be used to calm breathing in times of anxiety and stress. By calming your breathing, you will help your body to stop the fight or flight response that may be responsible for some of your stomach pains. An example of a breathing technique is the rectangle method, as you breath in draw the side of a rectangle with your finger in the air for 4 seconds, next breathe out whilst drawing the next side for four seconds and so on. This should be repeated until you feel your breathing has calmed down to a manageable level. This is just one example of a breathing exercise that can be used in times of anxiety, more can be found from self-help books/websites and therapists for anxiety.
For some people, a distraction may help to calm a period of anxiety. Distractions and activities such as going for a walk, meeting a friend and reading a book may all help to distract yourself from your anxiety and your nervous stomach.
Reframe your thoughts
Although this may not be possible during severe periods of anxiety, if possible, it may be beneficial to attempt to reframe negative anxiety causing thoughts to something more positive. This can be done by writing out distressing thoughts and then writing a counter argument or it could be done by reframing thoughts in your mind. For example, if you walk past somebody you know and they don’t acknowledge you this may cause anxious thoughts, you may wonder what you have done wrong for them not to talk to you, or you may worry you have caused the person to not like you anymore. These are negative unhelpful thoughts, it may be more helpful to rationalise the likeliness of these thoughts. If you haven’t done anything to the person then it is unlikely you have caused their reaction, they may have just received bad news, they may have had a bad day, or they may be in their own world and may not have even seen you. Reframing these negative thoughts may help to calm your anxiety and prevent the digestive anxiety symptoms from occurring.
Avoid caffeine, excessive sugar, alcohol and drugs
If you are aware you suffer from anxiety related digestion issues, it may be helpful to reduce or avoid your consumptions of irritating food substances. Caffeine, excessive sugar, alcohol and drugs can all cause stomach and digestive issues even without anxiety, reducing your consumption of these items may help your experience of symptoms.
Longer term solutions for anxiety
If you feel you need more help, then the short-term solutions described above then these long-term solutions may be helpful for you. It is important to make clear that these solutions are not definitive solutions, and whilst they may be effective for some people, they may not be effective for another. You may find a solution not listed here that works for you instead.
Longer term solutions would include seeing a GP who may recommend medication and/or therapy. Attending online therapy can be more convenient and flexible then attending face to face therapy. Online therapy can also involve less costs than traditional therapy as it alleviates the need for travel costs. If you feel like online therapy would be useful for your anxiety related stomach problems, then please contact us using the ‘make appointment’ button to access a trained psychologist specialising in anxiety related stomach problems.