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Understanding Stomach Ache Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms And Effective Treatments
Stomach aches are a common occurrence in everyday life. They can be caused by various factors, such as indigestion, food allergies, or infections. In addition, some individuals manifest stress and anxiety in the form of an upset stomach, which disrupts everyday life and keeps them up at night.
Our digestive tract is often referred to as the “second brain” because it is highly sensitive to emotional states and in constant communication with the central nervous system. It is no surprise that emotions can affect brain chemistry which, in turn, may wreak havoc on our digestive system.
In this article, we aim to describe the relationship between anxiety and stomach discomfort. We will explore the symptoms and why they occur, along with the latest research and recommendations to stop an anxiety stomach ache and sleep better with anxiety symptoms.
Does Anxiety Cause Stomach Pain?
Research has shown a clear link between anxiety and gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms which include stomach aches. Anxiety can activate a stress response that manifests in many ways and may affect the digestive system.
In a way, anxiety-induced stomach pain may present similarly to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which may have symptoms outside the abdomen. Stomach pain is the main symptom, with the potential for head or back pain, tiredness, and genitourinary problems. IBS is a chronic disease where the symptoms come and go until treated.
Stomach Ache Anxiety
Anxiety has a profound impact on the body, including the digestive system. Stress hormones released during the stress response hinder digestion by activating the sympathetic nervous system or “fight-or-flight” response. This response is very complex and may cascade into various issues with digestion.
As an example, a common symptom of stress is muscle tension. Chances are that the stomach muscles can tense up too, and later lead to cramps with slower digestion. The body may compensate by making more acid to try and digest your food, leading to heartburn and bloating. This new environment in the gut provokes nausea, diarrhea, or constipation.
What Does Anxiety Stomach Pain Feel Like?
While the predominant feature is stomach pain, there are other common symptoms. You may have one or many symptoms all at once similar to IBS. Here is a short list of common symptoms:
- Stomach cramps
- Appetite changes
The condition itself may provoke more anxiety. Anticipation of stomach pain, fear of accidents from diarrhea, or fear of trigger foods could impact your everyday life.
How Do I Know My Stomach Pain Is Related To Anxiety?
Determining whether you have a stomach ache from anxiety requires self-awareness. It is reasonable to consult a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis. Consider these ideas to help understand your situation better:
- What is the relationship between your stress or anxiety and nervous stomach symptoms? Notice if your pain coincides with intensified periods of stress or anxiety. Look for your triggers and related anxiety symptoms to see if they occur at similar times.
- Rule out other potential causes of stomach discomfort such as irritable bowel syndrome. A medical evaluation will rule out other physical conditions such as gastritis or an ulcer.
- Look at the techniques you use to resolve your stomach pain. A nervous stomach will respond to stress relief practices such as meditation or mindfulness. If relaxation techniques don’t work, there may be something else going on.
- If this is the first time or an infrequent occurrence, you may try strategies to combat indigestion. We have recommendations about how to clean your gut. Stomach acid reducers work gradually within hours. Finally, eating bland food such as plain rice may help along with plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Signs that there is something more serious include weight loss, blood in the stool, black or tarry stools, and abnormal lab work. These require a visit with a gastrointestinal specialist for diagnosis.
How To Treat Anxiety Stomach Pain
Techniques to reduce stress , such as breathing exercises for anxiety, can reduce stress hormones and relieve associated stomach problems. If you already manage a psychological disorder, you may use your current stress reduction exercises.
A review of several methods showed positive results in controlling stress levels. They look at the following:
- Coping skills training.
- Therapist-led and self-directed behavioral stress management programs.
- Combination of relaxation exercise with biofeedback and cognitive coping strategies and education.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was used to target IBS symptom anxiety specifically.
Consistent exercise is known to help manage stress and anxiety, including symptom reduction and trigger desensitization. One study compared yoga to CBT and found them to be effective. However, CBT was better overall and the researchers suggested combining both to enhance outcomes. Overall, exercise helps reduce anxiety but should not be used as the only method for management.
Nutrition And Supplements
Often, food is a trigger for disturbances in the digestive tract. Having stress and anxiety makes you more sensitive to triggers. It is reasonable to use supplements to help with digestion and reduce symptoms. Probiotics are known to work well in patients with IBS. Some multivitamin brands are designed for specific situations, such as gut health, and you can get started reading about them in our HUM nutrition reviews.
If anxiety truly is the underlying cause for stomach pain, then it should be the primary goal of treatment. Prescription medications and therapy are usual treatment options. Medicines include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), and benzodiazepines. While MAOIs and SSRIs work to prevent anxiety, benzodiazepines are usually reserved for panic attacks and help with sleep.
Specific treatments for anxiety-related stomach issues are similar to any other stomach issue where you treat the specific symptoms.
Natural remedies often come in candy or tea form and include:
- Mint or ginger may soothe the stomach, treat nausea, and reduce acid.
- Melatonin may stimulate movement in the gastrointestinal tract to reduce acid and indigestion.
- Algaes and pectin float on the top of stomach contents and can protect the esophagus from acid.
- Various others such as chamomile, slippery elm, and marshmallow root are common but don’t have much scientific evidence supporting their use for stomach issues.
Over-the-counter medicines for gut health are so varied it is difficult to list them all. Talking directly with a pharmacist is the fastest and easiest way to make a treatment decision. Here is a list of common first recommendations based on the symptoms:
- Nausea is often treated with meclizine (Antivert) or dimenhydrinate (Dramamine).
- Heartburn and bloating can be treated in two ways. Products like omeprazole (Prilosec) and ranitidine (Zantac) are called “acid reducers” because they block the stomach from producing more acid. Antacids such as Tums and Mylanta eliminate the acid already present in the stomach. Be wary of using baking soda because it can make bloating worse.
- Diarrhea is best treated first with loperamide (Imodium). There are several prescription options if the condition continues for more than a few days.
- Constipation is treated with laxatives and prevented with fiber. The choice of laxative is based on preference for the route of administration balanced with how fast the product works. Most will work with salts or a chemical to gather a lot of water to flush out your system. Senna is unique because it stimulates the muscles in the intestines to work harder and faster which is great for indigestion but may contribute to cramping.
- Cramping is usually a result of one of the other symptoms, when you have bloating from excess food that won’t move or from acid. Often, bacteria in our gut try to neutralize acid and make gasses as a byproduct. So, you can try to reduce the amount of acid or use probiotics to repopulate the gut with bacteria that don’t make so much gas.
Anxiety and stress cause stomach pain due to the mind and body connection and its influence on the digestive system. Understanding this relationship enables individuals to plan and take back control of their stress and anxiety. Reducing stress levels is the primary way to prevent and treat stomach pain.
We have discussed lifestyle changes and therapy, medicines, and over-the-counter treatments and supplements to resolve gastrointestinal discomfort. If you need more ideas, check out our review of some of the best anxiety supplements available. With patience, mindfulness, and support, individuals can retake control over their gut health and subdue an anxious stomach.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, when anxiety is left untreated the associated gastrointestinal disturbances may develop into IBS.
Medications and treatments start working and gradually improve symptoms throughout the day. Ultimately, the response to resolving anxiety and stress differs for each individual.
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