Anxiety and Digestion: What to Do When You Have the Butterflies

Anxiety and Digestion: What to Do When You Have the Butterflies

Ah, public speaking… nothing gets your heart racing or palms sweating faster than having to stand up in front of people and talk. Whether it was show’n’tell or your newest business idea, your stomach starts to churn right before it’s your turn.

Or maybe you get that call from your dream job. They want to interview you! The day comes and you arrive 10 minutes early. You feel those “butterflies” in your stomach. Your palms start to get sweaty. You wonder where the nearest bathroom is because suddenly you really “gotta go”.

Life is full of new things, and just about anything that has to do with the unknown can spark feelings of anxiety. And with anxiety often comes a boatload of bowel problems.

But why is that? What’s going on inside us that makes us feel sweaty, nauseous, and have to run to the bathroom? Even more importantly, how can we manage those feelings so that they don’t cripple our efforts to get what we need done?

We’re tackling that today as we focus on how our digestion is impacted when we experience anxiety, along with helpful ways to calm those butterflies down so you can rock whatever unknown thing you have coming your way!

What is Anxiety?

How do you define something that can come and go depending on the circumstance, or something that sticks around no matter what you do? While some people see anxiety as either an emotion or a response, the American Psychological Association (1) defines anxiety as, “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”

How It Affects Digestion

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. Not so with your body. When it comes to anxiety, what happens in your brain travels down into your gut, and throughout the rest of your body. Ever heard of the gut-brain axis? Or that your “gut is your second brain”? It’s true, and according to CalmClini (2), “The changes that affect digestion don’t start in your stomach. They actually start in your brain.”

Here’s how it works: Your nervous system has millions of neurotransmitters that send messages throughout the body, helping organs to function properly. When anxiety hits, your body gets a tidal wave of neurotransmitter messages, and your body quickly gets overwhelmed. It’s a part of the “fight or flight” system built into our bodies to help us get away from danger.

When that happens, your body puts some things on the back burner in order to use that energy elsewhere (like getting the heck outta dodge!). Your digestion is one of those things. Normal function is no longer a priority, and when left to their own devices your digestive organs begin to act crazy. That’s why you experience nausea, diarrhea, and other digestive upset.

But if you suffer from chronic anxiety, your brain is in a constant “fight or flight” mode, which can mess up the normal digestion process. Things like adrenaline, an imbalance between good and bad bacteria, lack of sleep, and excess stomach acid can also contribute to or worsen anxiety-induced digestion issues.

Symptoms

No two people react the same way when it comes to anxiety. And if your digestion seems out of whack, how do you know anxiety is to blame?

Some of the different symptoms associated with anxiety can include:

  • Muscle pain
  • Cold feet (yep – it’s a thing!)
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweaty palms
  • Feeling faint

Note: It’s quite possible to experience these things and not have anxiety. If you feel this is the case with you, talk with your doctor to rule out any other medical conditions.

Bag those Butterflies: Helpful Ways to Calm Your Anxious Stomach

So you know what anxiety is, and how it can mess up your digestion. How do you fix it? There are things you can do to address it both physically and mentally. Let’s start with the physical aspect:

Herbs

There are natural herbs that can help calm your nerves. You can find them in teas, capsules, or tablets. Some include:

  • Lavender
  • Lemon balm
  • Ashwagandha
  • Tulsi (aka Holy Basil)
  • Chamomile

Supplements

In addition to nerve-calming herbs, these supplements support your overall digestion process:

What you put into your mind is just as important as what you put into your body. Now let’s talk about the psychological aspect of anxiety.

Thought Processes

Thinking things through can go a long way. And because anxiety starts in the brain, it’s one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself.

Taking a deep dive can help uncover what you’re anxious about. Ask yourself the tough question. For example, many times we’re anxious in our relationships when we’re about to embark on something new, like asking someone out or an interview that totally flopped. We’re afraid of a negative response or outcome. Even acknowledging, “I’m afraid she’ll say no.” Or “I’m worried I won’t get that job” can help lead you down the path to realizing, “If she says no, then ok.” Or “If I don’t get the job, then it wasn’t the one for me.” This provides a sense of closure so you can move forward.

If you need help sorting out anxious thoughts, spend some time talking with someone more knowledgeable in the area than you. Pray about it, reach out to friends and family, or make an appointment with a therapist. There is no shame in wanting to grow and become better, and anxiety can hold you back from being your best self.

Bonus tip: Often we place more responsibility on ourselves than we have to. We try to control things that are simply out of our control (3). If you have anxiety in a situation where you’ve done all you can, simply say out loud, “There’s literally nothing I can do about it.” This takes the pressure off and offers a humble appreciation for the grand scheme of things.

Other Tips

In addition to taking supplements and talking it out, these tips can help you get an edge on your anxiety and banish those butterflies:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating foods that are easy to digest (avoid fried or hard to digest foods)
  • Taking a supplement to repair any leaky gut issues
  • Going for a jog

Practicing mindful breathing techniques may help, too. Simply take a few minutes, close your eyes, and focus solely on your breath. In, out. In, out. Inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. This can help lower your heart rate, bringing extra oxygen in and helping release tension.

Takeaway

Anxiety is inevitable in the world we live in today. As you go about your life, you may have to do stressful things. And while those butterflies in your stomach can be unsettling, it’s a reminder that you’re human, you’re not alone, and you’ll get through it.

Realizing why you’re anxious can help lead you towards how to fix it. Sorting thoughts out, talking with people you trust, taking herbs and supplements are all practical ways you can calm down an anxious digestive tract.

Life will always have challenges. While it’s normal to face the unknown with worry or dread, we can train ourselves to see uncertainty in a positive light. We can even get excited about the possibilities ahead if we choose to see it that way.

Have you experienced anxiety and those “butterfly” feelings? Try some of these ideas and see if they help.

Reference

(1) https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/

(2) https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/digestive-problems

(3) https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-calm-anxious-stomach-brain-gut-connection