Did you know that the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotions? Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation, all of these feelings — and more — can trigger symptoms in the gut. Anxiety can be linked to stomach problems, and vice versa.
You may have experienced a “gut-wrenching” experience or a situation that makes you “feel nauseous” or feel “butterflies” in your stomach. That’s because the brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines.
According to the Harvard Medical School’s website health.harvard.edu, “the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.”
This can be especially true when there are no obvious physical causes, but a person experiences gastrointestinal upset. For these kinds of disorders, it is difficult to heal an upset gut without considering the role of stress and emotion in the disorder.
It’s easier to understand why you might feel a little sick to your stomach before giving a presentation or during times of stress, given the connection between the gut and your brain.
“That doesn’t mean, however, that functional gastrointestinal conditions are imagined or ‘all in your head.’ Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms,” according to health.harvard.edu. “Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract.”
In addition, according to the Harvard website, many people with functional GI disorders perceive pain more acutely than other people do because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract. “Stress can make the existing pain seem even worse.”
Based on these observations, you might expect that at least some patients with functional GI conditions might improve with therapy to reduce stress or treat anxiety or depression. Multiple studies have found that psychologically-based approaches lead to greater improvement in digestive symptoms compared with only conventional medical treatment.
If you have stomach or intestinal problems — such as heartburn, abdominal cramps, or loose stools — they could be related to stress in your life. Watch for these and other common symptoms of stress and discuss them with your doctor. Together you can come up with strategies to help you deal with the stressors in your life, and also ease your digestive discomforts.