Ahhhh, the nervous stomach. One of the trademark symptoms of anxiety. Right up there with shortness of breath and racing heartbeat. Feeling like your intestines are tying themselves in knots? Rabid psycho butterflies? Queasiness? Big ball of lead making itself at home right in the pit of your stomach?
I’ve been there. That was actually one of my first ever symptoms of anxiety when I was in 6th or 7th grade. Most mornings I woke up with stomach cramps and nausea and as soon as my mom called me off school my symptoms magically disappeared. Everyone thought I was faking. I ended up missing a lot of school because of it and eventually went to the doctor. I don’t remember if the words “anxiety” were mentioned but I was sent home and told to take an antacid in the morning before school and that was that.
(Make sure to check out the Self-Love Workbook: Mental Health for more self-care and ways to deal with your anxiety)
I remember my last break-up and the way my stomach felt. I had absolutely no appetite. There was such a heaviness in my stomach that it made me constantly nauseous. I’d get random cramps, probably from hunger. It’s the worst.
So why do we get anxious tummies?
If you’ve read my post on morning anxiety, then you know that stress and anxiety increase hormones in your body. Especially if it’s intense stress and anxiety. All kinds of things start being produced in your body, mainly adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is responsible for the racing heartbeat, the shakiness, shortness of breath, and inability to sleep. Cortisol suppresses a lot of the non-essential functions of your body.
Your body starts to think it’s in a Hunger Games situation.
Flight or fight. You either don’t need to eat because you’re about to be running for your life or you have to EAT ALL THE THINGS because you’re about to be in a fight for your life. If you’ve ever been so stressed out you missed a period? That’s the cortisol telling your body there’s no time for reproduction because DANGER.
Bodies are such sensitive things.
Along with those lovely helping hormones, your muscles are tensing all over your body, neck, back, and yep, stomach.
Anxiety can also trigger irritable bowel syndrome, especially if you’re stressed out consistently over a long period of time. You know the saying “So scared you pooped your pants?” That’s another wonderful symptom of anxiety. Not the actual dirtying of your pants but gas, constipation, bloating, diarrhea, cramping – all things that we don’t usually talk about when we talk about anxiety. It’s not all panic attacks and deep breaths.
A reminder, I’m not a medical professional so if you’re having overwhelming anxiety symptoms, visit your doctor.
Self-Care for an Anxious Tummy:
So now that we know why our stomach feels the way it does, let’s talk about what we can do to start alleviating those symptoms.
Figure out why you’re anxious.
Hopefully you didn’t think this was going to be easy. The best thing that you can do for yourself is to get your stress and anxiety under control. That means facing those things that are triggering you. And usually, that means creating boundaries. Believe me, I know how hard that is. It might be time to step away from a job, relationship, friendship, or situation that’s causing you to feel so anxious.
The best, most life-changing, act of self-care is choosing your own well-being.
Talk yourself through it.
One of my greatest tools for anxiety is my self-talk. Change the way you talk to yourself. It’s so easy to let anxiety grab you by the hand and lead you down the rabbit hole. “Nothing is going to get better. Things are going to get worse. Just think about all of the terrible, terrible, things that are going to happen.”
Sometimes I like to pretend that there’s this calm, cool, air-traffic controller inside of my head that’s talking me through a rocky landing. “You got this. Just take a deep breath and keep going forward. Everything is going to be okay, just stay calm.”
The way you talk to yourself makes all the difference. And if you’re going through some crappy life stuff, build yourself up. Those hard times are not going to last forever. You will find someone that loves you the way you deserve to be loved. And you will probably be tempted to tell yourself the opposite. Don’t. Same thing with everything else. Talk yourself up.
It also helps to talk to someone else. Sometimes sharing the burden of the things that are making you anxious can help lessen the anxiety almost immediately. It’s like a huge release on that pressure valve inside of you. Just scheduling a therapy appoint or a date with your best friend can make all the difference.
If you think meditation isn’t for you – think again. There are so many ways to meditate and if the thought of sitting in silence and breathing freaks out your anxiety (it does mine) never fear. Try a guided meditation. There are so many to choose from. I love these Goddess Meditations – the one where you imagine you are Mother Earth – helps me out every time.
There are guided meditations where you imagine you are walking through a rainstorm, flying through a rainbow, exploring a secret garden. And if that’s a bit too woo for you, there are meditations that just focus on having your awareness go up and down your body and consciously relaxing every muscle.
There are tons of meditations on the app Insight Timer. If you’re having problems sleeping because the anxiety has your mind on over-drive, I recommend listening to a meditation to help you fall asleep and quiet the thoughts.
Practice breathing exercises.
Mmmmm. Breathing. Something you take for granted until you’re going through a period of anxiety and no breath feels deep enough. When I’m anxious I also constantly yawn, my body’s way of trying to get more air. I like to try different breathing exercises and I just go with what feels good in the moment. It’s a complete toss-up as to what will make my chest feel more relaxed at any given time. These are not the technical names or anything, just go with it.
The Whale: I take a deep breath in through my nose and then blow it out really fast through my mouth so that it sounds like a whale’s blowhole. Or a dolphin.
Innnnn and Ouuuuut: Inhale through your nose for a certain amount of time 4-6 seconds, hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for the same amount of seconds you inhaled.
Belly Breaths: Put your hands on your stomach and just breathe deeply, feeling the rise and fall of your tummy. Send a little love through your hands.
The Lamaze: Take one deep breath in, and then blow it out three times through your mouth. This will sometimes make me feel like my chest is more relaxed.
The Windy Day: Inhale through your nose and then exhale through your mouth, kind of like you’re whistling, so that it sounds like wind.
Nosey: In through the nose and out through the nose really fast. Only do this one for a few seconds at a time, it can make you lightheaded quickly.
Slow and Relaxed: Just lay or sit quietly, focus on your breathing, breathe slowly, count your breaths if you want to.
Listen to medicine music.
There is something about music that has this ability to affect us in amazing ways. Truth time: When I’m anxious (or depressed) my instinct is to listen to sad music. You know, dig deep into those feels with lyrics that relate to how I’m feeling. I’ve noticed that if I DON’T do that, it’s better for me. There’s something that’s a bit cathartic about listening to a song that lets us know that we’re not alone in our experiences or in our feelings but it’s not always helpful.
I like to listen to what I call medicine music. This is a lot of eastern-inspired music. Krishna Das, Wah!, Snatam Kaur, are just some of them. Anything that brings out those spiritual feelings. I think subconsciously it reminds us that we’re not alone but in a bigger, universal, kind of way.
I know, I’m probably getting the side-eye here. When I’m anxious, one of the last things I want to do is exercise. But it will help. It gives you an outlet for the adrenaline and the nervous energy, you take in up to 15 times more oxygen, and it also starts counteracting those hormones by producing endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine.
It really, really, does help if you can find the motivation to do it. I usually tell myself I’m going to go for a brisk two-minute walk to the end of the street and then when I get there, I try to just keep going. I’m gullible enough to trick myself sometimes.
Give yourself good foods.
When I’m anxious I have two extremes, I don’t want to eat anything for days or I want to binge and eat everything in sight. Certain foods that I normally love will make me nauseous just by smelling them. I try to treat myself like I have the flu and have to be gentle with my tummy.
Broths and soups will usually be okay. Things like crackers are also good. Try to get a little bit into your stomach every day. And if you’re feeling the urge to eat your feelings, treat yourself once, and then try to redirect to things that are a bit better for you or eat in a way that’s not binging.
You especially want to make sure you’re eating if you’re a regular caffeine drinker. Not eating can make the caffeine put your system on overload, make you more jittery, and completely mess with your blood sugar. Take care of you.
Mint and ginger teas are the best tummy soothers.
I’m also going to mom you and tell you to drink water. So drink water.
Focus on stress-management.
#SelfCareGoals is getting to the point of being able to list 10-15 things you can do when you’re stressed out, burned out, or anxious and then actually doing those things until you feel better. And if they don’t make you feel better, you add a few more. And if that doesn’t help, you do it all again the next day.
Here are some of the things that help me:
A bath with magnesium (Epsom salt). I also take magnesium in pill form, but it can sometimes cause a laxative effect so if you’re having those kinds of issues, stick to the epsom salt baths. A nice hot bubble bath by itself is a great way to relax too.
Lavender essential oil has been my go-to for a decade. I’ve built up such a strong mental connection that lavender + stress relief that the moment I smell it, I instantly feel at least 10% better. You can diffuse it, rub it on your chest or belly, or spray your bed with it.
I swaddle myself like a newborn baby. And it works! Weighted blankets are really popular right now for things like sensory overload, autism, and anxiety. They’re also pretty pricey, so I just roll myself up like a human burrito. Wrapping yourself in blankets and giving yourself a bit of a restrained feeling can reduce anxiety. Think straight-jacket but more comfortable.
Distract your mind. Anxiety can cause your thoughts to race or play on a never-ending loop. Find ways to distract yourself and block out those thoughts. I usually play the Office, Parks and Rec, Golden Girls, or something funny to take the tension out of my day.
ASMR videos. I swear I give this advice almost more than anything. My anxiety hates silence and ASMR videos give me relaxing background noise that helps calm me down and focus. If you’re into Harry Potter or Game of Thrones check out ASMR rooms.
Journal. I have a private tumblr account where I journal random things. Sometimes they’re curse words, or random thoughts, or just a few words to let it all out. Write down your feeling somewhere, don’t keep them bottled up inside.
Aside from taking mylanta when I was younger, I haven’t bothered with any antacids but they do help some people! Try out Tums or Mylanta and see if that helps and then let me know!
How do you deal with an anxious tummy?
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I can completely relate to this. My tummy is the first to be effected whenever I’m going through something stressful.
I used to wake up with with a nervous stomach every single morning for no reason at all. It was the worst! Thankfully, I was able to get that under control by creating a relaxing morning routine for myself.
Even if you have been diagnosed with anxiety, if you start getting intense pain that you think is anxiety, it might not be! I had severe stomach pains that, for several years, I thought was anxiety. It turns out that those specific pains were related to a gall bladder issue. (I wish I had known!) That is the interesting thing I’ve discovered about having chronic mental health challenges – sometimes pain seems like just another mental health symptom, so I don’t even consider that I might have physical issues that need to be addressed.
Wow I love this! I too started getting these stomach problems in Middle School. Went to the doctor cause it felt like I had something in my throat. They diagnosed me with a “nervous stomach” but never mentioned anxiety. Looking back that’s exactly what it was. Now that I’m older I have a terrible stomach that is so much worse with stress. I love my epsom salt baths with essential oils. I eat Altoid mints like they are my lifesaver and the digest zen essential oil. I also do breathing techniques. Thanks for your tips. I love reading about this. I know in my head that’s what’s going on, but it’s hard to get out of my mind and pull myself out of it sometimes.