Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
A lot of people deal with anxiety. In fact, it’s believed that 40 million adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder. And it presents in different ways — both physically and mentally. We all know about the fidgeting restlessness that comes with anxiety, but what about other issues? Namely, stomach issues. Can anxiety cause stomach pain?
Believe it or not, the answer is yes. But how does anxiety cause stomach pain? And what does anxiety-related stomach pain mean for your body? Should you be worried that stomach pain is part of a bigger health issue?
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start at the beginning.
There are many common symptoms when it comes to anxiety — and experiencing them can certainly impact your quality of life. Symptoms of anxiety include an increased heart rate, fatigue, irritability and trouble sleeping.
And yes, anxiety can even cause stomach issues.
If you think about it, you’ve probably noticed a clear connection before. Think about the butterflies you feel before giving a presentation or how your stomach feels like it’s in knots while arguing with a partner.
There’s actually a biological reason for this — it’s commonly referred to as the gut-brain connection. Your brain can directly affect your stomach and your digestive tract. So, if your stress levels sky rocket, it may manifest as abdominal pain.
Now that you understand that anxiety can indeed lead to abdominal pain or digestive tract issues, let’s talk about why this happens.
As mentioned before, there’s a gut-brain connection at play here. That connection is through your central nervous system.
More specifically, something called the enteric nervous system (which is a branch of the central nervous system) connects your gastrointestinal tract to your brain.
When you get stressed out, your brain may release certain hormones and neurotransmitters that can impact your stomach and cause pain and discomfort.
Not only that, but anxiety and stress can impact the balance of bacteria in your stomach, leading to further pain.
So, what kind of belly pain is most commonly associated with anxiety? Things you may notice include:
Loss of appetite or unusual hunger
You may also develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This condition is considered to be a grouping of symptoms (many of which are listed above) that can lead to gas, pain and cramps.
Unfortunately, anxiety-induced stomach pain can also be a bit of a cyclical thing. Once you experience the pain, the pain can cause even more anxiety — which, in turn, can impact your quality of life even further.
Another way that anxiety can cause stomach problems is through diet.
When some people get anxious, they may change the way they eat. Some people eat more or eat less healthy things as a way of soothing themselves, while others may eat less.
Others may choose to guzzle coffee, smoke or drink alcohol. All of these things can lead to stomach pain or issues.
You’ll want to consult with a healthcare professional on the best way to treat your anxious stomach.
Most likely, they’ll want you to address your anxiety. If you don’t address the root issue, you probably won’t be able to get your gastrointestinal symptoms to go away for good.
When it comes to addressing anxiety, there are a number of things you can try, including:
In CBT, you work with a mental health professional to call out behaviors and patterns that add to your anxiety. From there, you figure out ways to make changes.
Hers offers online therapy, which can be a convenient way of fitting sessions into your busy schedule.
Anti-anxiety medication is another option. Often, a healthcare professional will recommend a combination of therapy and medication
Physical activity can be a great way to lower stress. This is because when you work out, your body releases endorphins that can make you feel good.
In terms of how much exercise you should be getting, the National Library of Medicine recommends for adults 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise in a week or 75 minutes of high intensity exercise.
Another option to ease anxiety? Meditation.
Mindful meditation is all about attention and acceptance. The idea is that you stay focused on the present moment but think about how your body feels or other things you notice.
Then, if outside thoughts pop into your head (like your work to-do list or what’s for dinner), you accept them and let them go until you are done.
There’s some evidence supporting meditation for anxiety, too. One small 15-person study from 2014 found that 20 minutes of mindful meditation may lower anxiety. It is thought that this is because meditation reduces brain activity temporarily.
An easy way to incorporate meditation into your daily routine is by downloading an app that offers guided meditations.
Maybe you deal with generalized anxiety disorder, another anxiety disorder or just have general symptoms of stress in your life.
Whatever the case, there are many side effects you may experience. Some people notice physical symptoms pop up and find that their anxiety or stress response can lead to abdominal pain or an upset stomach.
See, there’s a clear connection between your gut and your brain (this is sometimes called the gut-brain connection or gut-brain axis). This means that in stressful situations, as your anxiety levels rise, you may notice stomach issues or pain.
To get rid of this discomfort, you’ll need to deal with feelings of anxiety. Therapy, medication and lifestyle tweaks can help alleviate anxiety symptoms and, therefore, help to mitigate stomach upset.
If you have noticed that your anxiety induces negative gastrointestinal conditions, it’s a good idea to schedule a consultation with a healthcare provider for help.
Start your mental wellness journey today.