IntroductionAt one point or the other in our lives, we may have experienced butterfly belly or a nervous stomach which has sent us immediately to washrooms. This kind of feeling which we experience is usually not caused by infections resulting from viruses or bacteria, but mainly caused due to an anxiety attack. At the same time, all of a sudden, we also experience nausea and vomiting. These kind of stomach cramps can be very painful especially when we are at height of anxiety attack. All of us may not experience anxiety related abdominal pain, but still it is a very common symptom. Similarly, intensity of cramps experienced too differs. Some of us may experience very mild pain whereas others may experience it in severe intensity.
Understanding mechanism of painAnxiety is a complex disorder. Brain communicates with the rest of the body organs through the nervous system. It communicates with stomach through enteric nervous system which means our stomach has its own nervous system. This mainly regulates digestive functions. When we develop mild stress, our digestive system slows down which causes stomach pain and other digestion related symptoms. When we develop high levels of stress or suffer from anxiety attacks in life threatening situations then brain induces "fight or flight" response in us. This response completely shuts down digestion so that all the internal energy body has can be utilized to face the situation. This kind of effect on stomach can cause severe abdominal cramps. This is the reason that we experience stomach pain along with other stomach related issues when we develop stress or suffer form anxiety attack.
Types of anxietyWe can experience stress or an anxiety attack in any of the given situations. While attending a fancy party, we may experience nervous stomach and this is because we feel anxious about it. We feel that we may not fit in there. Reason might be that we may be considering ourselves inferior to others or simply create anxiety cause we do not know anyone over there. Similarly, we may feel the same when we head out for the first day of our school, college, work place or simply to meet some one new. This is known as social anxiety. We also experience butterfly belly when we generate over-excitement in situations like announcement of exam or performance results, on wedding day, graduation day etc. Next comes anxiety caused by performance pressure. We experience it during exams, while delivering speeches and also while performing our acquired skills. We also experience abdominal pain when there is too much stress in our lives and this is called as stress or fear related anxiety. We experience it when we hold on to too much of stress or fear about something like when our loved ones move to a different place, when we face financial insecurity etc.
Digestion and anxietyStomach cramp is a very common symptom of anxiety and its intensity can vary from mild or dull to very severe. Sometimes it make a person to bend forward and thus one can notice a visible discomfort. There are many causes behind it. Anxiety very well affects digestive system leading to slow down its function and in extreme cases almost shuts its functions completely. This will affect movement of food down the intestine and will result in cramps. Not only we get to experience stomach cramps during anxiety, but we also experience various digestion related problems like gas, generalized pain in abdominal areas, bloating, nausea etc after anxiety attack. This is because our digestive functions becomes slow. Anxiety induces fight or flight system in us for a considerable amount of time. It is not just for a few seconds or so but for a longer period of time and through this period, our digestion does not work at its efficient level. As a result, we suffer from digestion related troubles which are of long term. This induces stomach cramping which gets worst when our stress and anxiety are at their peak levels.
Other factors causing stomachaches during anxietySome individuals during anxiety attacks do not experience any kind of stomach cramp. All they experience is muscle tension which occurs in the same place as that of cramp which is mistaken as cramp. Also, anxiety can cause muscle spasms which is known as cramping. In some individuals, repeated cycles can be seen. Individuals who get anxiety attack, show signs of stomachaches and those stomachaches can start stress and anxiety. So, this is more of a cycle in them which is seen for a long period of time. Also, anxiety worsens digestion related problems. Certain digestive problems like gas, bloating, mild dehydration which already exist go unnoticed as they are mild in intensity and are not seeking much attention by causing any troubles on day to day basis. However, in periods of stress and anxiety, they seem to worsen and seek attention. They cause more pain than on any given regular day. When we suffer from anxiety, we become over sensitive to all sorts of pains and discomforts whether it is in our body or mind. Thus, it can be said that anxiety itself has an ability to make natural pain and discomfort very noticeable. During periods of anxiety and high levels of stress, even slight discomfort and mild pain seek much of our concern and attention and that is why we experience worsening of our already existing symptoms.
Digestion related symptoms of anxietyApart form stomach cramps or stomachaches one also experiences other digestion related symptoms during episodes of anxiety or high stress. Stomach appears to be bloated and there are often complaints of vomiting or nausea. One may experience diarrhea, loose stools and a constipated stomach. Excessive intestinal gas gets accumulated. Belching, burping, burning sensation in stomach is experienced along with lots of distress or discomfort. A strange type of feeling full or tightness is experienced in stomach giving that heavy feeling. Increased acidity, acid re-flux are other very commonly experienced symptoms. Some feel as if there are butterflies in stomach whereas others complain of an anxiety stomach.
Stress hormones act like stimulantsBody finds it difficult to recover if stress levels rise at frequent intervals or else if stress responses are occurring very dramatically. As a result, body undergoes hyper-stimulated state. Hormones which are released during stress episodes, act as stimulants. Thereby body starts facing various digestion related troubles like stomach aches or cramps in stomach. Our body itself releases hormones and chemicals. When we feel anxious, these chemicals and hormones trigger physical symptoms in our body like cramps in stomach.
Consequences of anxiety episodes on stomachAnxiety do not only cause symptoms just for the time being but will cause them to exist for a long-term. One may not have digestion related troubles before anxiety attacks. However, frequent anxiety and stress responses will make sure that individuals do suffer from them. Serious disturbances get created in the body. More intense episodes of anxiety trigger release of adrenaline in the body which is responsible for an individual to experience all the physical and psychological symptoms he has been experiencing. If this pain is not treated then definitely it will pose threat to long term health. Large amount of acids present in stomach and disruption of digestive functions lead to slow processing of nutrients and this can only bring ill-health. If stress or anxiety attacks become common then risk of stomach ulcers increases. Large amount of acids present in stomach can cause wounds in the lining of stomach and intestine. Stomachache which occurs during anxiety is a strong sign displaying that stress level is too high and if such episodes are frequently encountered then the risk of stomach ulcers increases largely. Treatment of anxiety and stress related stomach pain thereby becomes essential to prevent any further damage.
Various stress related stomach troublesStress definitely affects hormones in our body which are very essential for digestive functions. When stress level increases, hormone level is disturbed and this in turn leads digestion to suffer. All of these changes cause stomach cramps, bloating, fullness etc. Stress causes abdominal tension. This tension in abdomen itself is responsible for tiring of muscles in abdomen and squeezing of related organs. This creates stomach cramps. Irritable bowel syndrome(IBS) develops in body when digestive system is disrupted and not performing its function properly. Anxiety is a major cause of IBS. When once IBS develops, it can cause stomach cramps, even in absence of anxiety. High levels of stress or anxiety can induce release of epinephrine. This in turn increases release of large amount of acid in stomach. Consequently, esophageal lining develops irritation causing nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps etc.
ConclusionAnxiety is body's natural response to difficult and threatening events. Anxiety caused in right amount and at right time help to tackle life threatening events and this is because adrenaline released help us to fight and overcome difficulties. However, frequent anxiety attacks and high levels of stress interfere with daily life and trigger physical and psychological symptoms in us. They disrupt digestive functions and cause stomach cramps which can be mild to severe in intensity. We may feel butterflies in stomach and also complain of various digestion related troubles like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, heaviness etc. Anxiety can be social, performance based or stress based but the mechanisms or changes which it causes in body is definitely responsible for causing stomach cramps or nervous belly.