Can anxiety cause stomach pain and diarrhea? What does it feel like?

Maud Geesen
By Maud Geesen
Can Anxiety Cause Stomach Pain and Diarrhea

It’s no coincidence that people feel like they have butterflies in their stomach when they’re nervous. The gut and brain are connected. You can experience physical symptoms in your digestive system when you’re having strong emotions.

The chemicals and hormones that your body releases when you’re anxious impact your intestinal microbiome. This can cause a number of stomach problems. If you have experienced stomach pain and digestive issues without a physical cause, you might be dealing with anxiety.

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Can anxiety cause stomach pain and diarrhea?

Diarrhea and stomach upset are common anxiety symptoms. Chronic anxiety may lead to lingering digestive problems. Acute anxiety can cause immediate distress.

If you have ever had to run to the bathroom during or after a nerve-wracking experience, you know what this is like. You may also recognize this symptom if you have struggled with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

Many people with IBS also suffer from anxiety. IBS symptoms, such as diarrhea, tend to worsen when you’re under stress.

Can stress cause stomach bloating?

Research shows that people who have anxiety and irritable bowel disease have more inflammatory compounds in their bodies than those who don’t have anxiety. That inflammation can affect the way that your intestines absorb water and nutrients.

When stress slows down digestion, you can end up with constipation and bloating. If you turn to food to cope with your emotions, you might end up with digestive distress.

What Does Anxiety Stomach Pain Feel Like

What does anxiety stomach pain feel like?

Anxiety stomach pain feels different for everyone. You might experience:
• An urgent need to empty your bowels
• Waves of cramping in your lower belly
• Generalized or intense nausea
• A queasy feeling in your stomach
• Acute pain or muscle movements that accompany a racing pulse or rapid breathing
• A dull ache that stems from constipation or inflammation

If you have these symptoms when you aren’t sick and haven’t eaten anything that might upset your stomach, you might have anxiety stomach pain.

When should you be concerned about stomach pain?

Stomach pain isn’t always a concern. However, it could be a sign of an underlying medical condition or emergency.

Go to the doctor right away if your pain is:
• Unmanageable
• Accompanied by a fever
• Causing you to avoid eating or drinking
• Making it hard to keep food or beverages down for two days
• Accompanied by signs of dehydration

Some digestive conditions can become serious when paired with anxiety. Ulcers, for example, are exacerbated by stress. Irritable bowel diseases flare up in the face of anxiety. When a physical ailment is aggravated by anxiety, it’s important to take steps to improve your physical and psychological health.

The sensations that you feel in your body are there to give you information. Pay attention to how you feel. Even if it’s not incredibly bothersome, low-grade, chronic stomach pain is often an indicator that something is off balance.

How to get rid of anxiety in stomach

How to get rid of anxiety in stomach

You can improve anxiety-related stomach pain in two ways:
• Focus on reducing anxiety – Regulating your nervous system reduces inflammation and keeps your digestive system in check.
• Concentrate on improving gut health – Anxiety can cause stomach problems, and digestive distress can cause anxiety. Improve your gut health with wellness practices to reduce your risk of developing anxiety.

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How to Calm a Nervous Stomach

Almost everyone has a nervous stomach from time to time. Perhaps you feel uneasy when waiting in line for a roller coaster or have stomach cramps before a big meeting. Maybe you have been working with gastrointestinal specialists unsuccessfully to uncover the cause of a chronic intestinal problem.

You can use these tips for calming a nervous stomach any time. Some work best in the short term, calming a nervous stomach that’s caused by an independent event. Others help relieve anxiety in the long-term, bringing you lasting relief from digestive issues.

Short-Term Solutions for Anxiety

Acute anxiety can be debilitating. If you feel panicky in specific moments or for brief periods of time, you can use these techniques to trigger your body’s own calming mechanisms.

Breathing is your body’s built-in way of relieving stress. Deep breathing can change your blood’s pH level, reduce blood pressure and diminish the production of stress hormones.

When you breathe deeply, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the network of nerves and organs that regulates stress and promotes calmness.

A responsive central nervous system that can regulate itself in the face of stress helps your digestive and immune systems stay strong. When you’re in anxiety mode, your digestive function slows down to divert energy and blood flow to your extremities. It’s the classic “fight or flight” response.

Breathing techniques help you ease out of a triggered state during moments of panic. Practicing them consistently can permanently rewire your brain so that you can access this calming mechanism more easily.

One of the most basic, effective ways to activate your calming response is to use diaphragmatic breathing. This reduces oxygen demand, encourages relaxation, lowers heart and respiration rates and reduces blood pressure.

Practice belly breathing while lying down on your back. Place on hand on your belly and the other on your chest. As you inhale through your nose, feel the breath expand your belly like a balloon. Don’t exert too much force or effort. Let your diaphragm create a vacuum to pull the air in and contract to expel the air out.

When your mind is running in circles and your thoughts are keeping you in an anxious spiral, you might be able to distract yourself. Distractions are a temporary fix, but they’re often necessary for breaking the cycle.

Distraction is a dialectical behavioral therapy technique that helps people cope with anxiety, stress and overwhelming emotions. Come up with a list of enjoyable activities that you could pick up at a moment’s notice.

Some examples include:
• Calling a friend
• Going for a hike
• Taking a shower
• Finishing a chore
• Listening to music

Think about hobbies that you enjoy or activities that made you feel good as a child. Create a long list so that you can choose distractions without having to brainstorm next time you feel anxious.

A physical way to quell anxiety with a distraction is to splash your face with ice water or hold a cold pack to your cheeks for at least 30 seconds. The temperature change activates the mammalian diving response, kick-starts anxiety relief by slowing your heart rate dramatically. This type of distraction can make other calming techniques easier to carry out.

Reframe Your Thoughts
Your thoughts impact what you believe and how you act. In fact, your nervous system is set up to seek confirmation of its internal state. If you feel anxious more often than not, your subconscious mind will look for ways to continue feeling that way.

That explains why it’s so difficult to take steps to feel better when you feel terrible. If you’re anxious, you might get stuck in a negative behavior pattern because your subconscious wants you to keep doing things that make it anxious.

When anxiety affects your physical state, you might say things to yourself such as, “I always feel miserable.” Your subconscious will look for ways to make that belief true.

It may feel inauthentic, but you can shift negative behavior patterns by reframing your thoughts. Here are some common anxiety-perpetuating beliefs and ways to reframe them:
• I’m always in pain vs. I’m grateful that my body tries to get my attention when it needs something.
• I’ll never get out of this mess vs. I’m resourceful and have always gotten out of my messes.
• I feel sad every day vs. I’ve had moments of inspiration and hopefulness recently.

Long-Term Solutions for Anxiety

Consistently practicing short-term coping mechanisms for anxiety will help your central nervous system become more responsive. You’ll be better able to manage intrusive thoughts and calm down during or after a stressful situation. But you should also focusing on long-term solutions that prevent anxiety.

Avoid Caffeine, Excessive Sugar, Alcohol and Drugs
Many people turn to chemicals for quick fixes to their anxiety problems. Caffeine and sugar can give you a boost of energy, but they create an imbalance that can leave you feeling exhausted when you crash. Alcohol and some drugs are calming, but they alter your nervous system, making it more difficult to self-regulate.

Seek Professional Advice
Everyone could benefit from working with a counselor. A licensed therapist can give you an objective perspective and teach you coping skills. They can hold you accountable for practicing calming techniques and help you work through obstacles.

Medication is helpful for some people. Working with a psychiatrist can help you correct chemical imbalances that contribute to anxiety.

Practice Preventative Care
It’s important to stay healthy when anxiety is affecting your physical wellness. Exercise regularly, eat a nutrient-rich diet and get routine exams to rule out medical conditions that could be affecting your mental or digestive health. Practice self-care and take time for yourself. When you focus on your holistic health, short-term coping skills become long-term anxiety solutions.

Final Thoughts

Your mental and physical health are intimately related. When your mental health suffers, you often have physical symptoms. Treating anxiety can help people who suffer from intestinal problems, and managing digestive diseases can ease anxiety.

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Maud Geesen
Maud Geesen

Dr Maud Geesen is a general practitioner graduated from Claude Bernard University. Passionate about psychiatry, psychology and personal development she now focuses on helping people on these levels.