All of us have experienced that “butterflies in the stomach” sensation when something fills us with stress or apprehension. Sometimes those flutters are even associated with something positive, like falling in love or an exciting upcoming event. Others of us feel that certain emotions just “hit us in the gut,” giving us tummy aches, cramps, or other discomforts.
So it’s clear that our brains and emotions can have an impact on what’s happening in our stomachs, right? But for many of us—especially when we are experiencing intense bouts of stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues—our guts go freaking haywire. As an IBS sufferer myself, I know this all too well. Even just a little uptick in anxiety can turn my gut inside out.
The mind-body connection is REAL, and one of the first places we humans experience stress or unhappiness is in our stomachs. It is not unusual for stress to cause loose stools, constipation, cramping, bloating, heartburn—and even ulcers. It sucks, and in extreme circumstances, these symptoms can be totally debilitating. But what you might not know is that this kind of thing is actually extremely common.
“The stress-digestion connection is very strong, and I see patients every week who have digestive symptoms related to stress and anxiety,” Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and nutrition specialist, tells SELF.
So why does our digestive system go into overdrive when our stress levels are elevated? Blame it on the “brain-gut-axis.” Yup, your gut basically has a mind of its own. Some even call it your “second brain.” Yikes!
According to researchers, what happens in your brain has a direct impact on what happens in your gut. Stress in particular can cause your gut microbes to get totally out of whack. Additionally, it can also cause inflammation and an increase in bowel motility.
“When we are stressed out or anxious our sympathetic nervous system gets activated, which causes our gut to be more tense and irritable,” says Beurkens. “This can cause the muscles in the gut to spasm, which leads to cramping, diarrhea, and/or constipation depending on where the muscle contractions occur and for how long.”
Of course, having a few stressful days coupled with a jumpy stomach is something we can usually learn to live with. The problem comes when that stress becomes rampant and prolonged. This can really do a number on our guts. And upset tummies are not something anyone wants on top of those increased stress levels. Talk about a real shit-show.
“Over time, stress can cause levels of gut bacteria to become unbalanced, which leads to changes in neurotransmitter function, and perpetuates increased stress and anxiety in the brain,” explains Beurkens.
Stress is an awful thing, and our bodies are sometimes the first ones to tell us when things have gotten out of control. So, while having chronic stress-related stomach issues isn’t fun at all, you might consider it a wake-up call. For many of us, it’s a signal to finally get help for any stress or mental health issues that are causing our symptoms.
There is definitely no “one size fits all” strategy for dealing with the kind of stress that causes tummy issues. But experts recommend making sure you are getting enough sleep, going to therapy when needed, and incorporating breathing techniques and mindfulness into your life. One cool study from 2015 found that meditation actually had a profound impact on people with IBS-type symptoms. Who knew?
And if these measures don’t help, it’s definitely a good idea to see a doctor or gastroenterologist to rule out any other issues. While stress is something that affects our guts, it’s not always the only thing, and if things are really out of control, you want to make sure nothing more serious is happening.
For me personally, my IBS symptoms didn’t get resolved until I coupled the stress-reduction measures with dietary changes (the low-FODMAP diet was my golden ticket). Hormones are also a huge factor for me (anyone ever heard of the joys of period diarrhea?), and will probably not fully resolve until I hit menopause. Ughhh.
If you are feeling unsure of what exactly is throwing your gut into disarray, Beurkens recommends keeping a journal of your symptoms along with possible triggers, which I think is a genius idea. This will help you determine if your symptoms are stress-related, or related to something else.
“The biggest telltale sign that GI symptoms are stress-related is that they come and go depending on the amount and intensity of stressors happening in the person’s life,” explains Beurkens.
Here’s what you need to remember most of all, especially if your gut symptoms are causing you pain, discomfort, or are making it difficult to function: Hope is out there, and you are worth it. Once you’ve determined that stress is what’s causing your tummy issues, take it as a sign. Seriously. It means that your body isn’t having any of this shit anymore, and it is time for you de-stress and feel better.