How Anxiety And Stomach Pain Are Related

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many people have experienced abdominal pain in some capacity over the course of their lives. You may have felt stomach pain after eating or right before an important event. Perhaps your stomach gets upset while you are waiting in line for a roller coaster due to the impending surge of adrenaline. However, some people experience chronic and persistent stomach pain. This can be difficult, especially if the causes are unknown. Physical causes of stomach pain may include indigestion, gallbladder inflammation, inflammatory bowel disease, IBS, and GERD. If stomach pain occurs due to anxiety, meditation, yoga, exercise, dietary changes, and therapy can be helpful.

Is your stomach trying to tell you something?

How can you tell if the stomach pain you're feeling is resulting from chronic stress and anxiety, or if you're simply having a hard time digesting the last meal you ate? The truth is, it's not always easy to tell when stomach health and anxiety are connected. 

When experiencing stress, the body usually produces certain hormones that can enter the digestive tract, potentially impacting digestion and reducing antibody production. The reduction of antibodies typically results in the loss of the “defenses” of our immune system, which can make us more susceptible to sickness. One of these hormones, cortisol (often known as the stress hormone) can produce extra levels of acid in the stomach, potentially leading to pain and discomfort. Stress can also lead to muscle tension, which may affect the stomach as well.

One way for you to determine whether your stress and stomach issues are related is to take careful note of when (and in what circumstances) they occur. Are there particular situations in which your stomach always starts hurting? Do you only experience stomach pain when you're at work, or when you're around a relative with whom you have a rocky relationship? Maybe your stomach starts to hurt if you're thinking about financial difficulties, or if you begin to consider your problems with a partner. 

If you start to notice patterns that link your anxiety to stomach pain, then anxiety may be the cause of the physical pain you’re experiencing. You may want to consider seeking medical advice from a doctor to explore all of your treatment options.

Other causes for stomach pain

While it can be possible for an anxiety stomachache to resolve on its own and then reappear, there are other medical conditions that might make you feel sick to your stomach, such as gastrointestinal (GI) conditions. Suppose you’re experiencing blood in your stool, losing weight rapidly, or noticing other severe GI symptoms. In that case, you may be experiencing a more serious condition that requires the treatment of GI doctors or other specialists. Here are some conditions and general symptoms that can cause stomach pain. Thorough medical testing may be needed to rule them out.

Indigestion after eating

This is likely one of the more common causes of stomach pain, and if you get acid reflux, then you are likely able to identify the symptoms relatively quickly. Some people encounter indigestion their whole lives, while others may only develop indigestion when they get older. For example, if someone has a particular love of spicy food, they may notice that while they could eat endless amounts of it at age 20, their body isn’t as accepting of it at age 60. If you notice that your stomach problems pop up only when you eat certain foods, then anxiety is not likely to be the cause.

Gallbladder inflammation or gallstones

If your gallbladder needs medical attention, pain will typically be present. The pain that you may experience from overeating or gas will usually feel different from gallbladder issues. Gallstones generally cause sharp, shooting pain rather than a dull ache from typical stomach pain.

If you’re experiencing sharp, severe stomach pains, you may want to see a doctor as quickly as possible, especially if the pain is unfamiliar or distracting. 

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease is another condition that often leads to stomach pain. Bowel diseases most commonly take the form of either Crohn's Disease or ulcerative colitis. Both are potentially painful and uncomfortable ailments if they aren't treated and may lead to severe cramping. 

Irritable bowel syndrome

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is another condition that can cause stomach pain. The most common symptoms of IBS typically include stomach cramps, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. If you think you might have irritable bowel syndrome, consider seeking the medical expertise of doctors who can provide medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, also known as GERD, is a condition where stomach acid often rises back up into your esophagus. GI symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and heartburn, can go along with a general sense of discomfort and stomach pain.

If your doctor has determined that GERD is present, anxiety might be contributing to your discomfort. It has been established in some cases that GERD and anxiety can be related.

What is the relationship between GERD and anxiety?

As stress and anxiety can affect both the body and the brain, GERD and anxiety may be directly correlated and tied to each other in some instances. If you're stressed out about something, then the body may respond in physical ways, even when you do not recognize it mentally. 

Anxiety triggers may often coincide with stomach pain. In these cases, consulting a professional about medication or dietary changes can help ease the onset of anxiety-induced stomach pain.

What to do if anxiety is causing your stomach problems

If an anxiety disorder is the root of your stress and anxiety—and, in turn, your stomach discomfort—it may be helpful to seek professional treatment. As discussed above, the gut and brain are often closely connected, and therefore, stress and anxiety can negatively impact both the mind and body. This can lead to digestive issues and mental health challenges. Talk therapy may alleviate some of your symptoms of anxiety, including stomach pain.

In addition to eating healthier, there may be other things you can do to see changes in anxiety. You may consider reducing the amount of caffeine you consume throughout the day by limiting the number of soft drinks or cups of coffee you drink. 

Avoiding alcohol can also help decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety. Although alcohol may make you feel less stressed in the short term, alcohol consumption has usually been shown to increase stress levels after the initial period of calmness wears off, which may lead to a panic attack in some cases. 

Small changes in alcohol consumption and caffeine intake can have the potential to greatly ease stomach pain and reduce stress levels.

Stay away from activities that make you anxious

Anxiety is sometimes the body's way of telling us that we are taking part in activities that invoke stress and discomfort. Stomach pain could be a warning signal that you’re at risk of more serious issues. There may be a variety of things we can do daily to calm stress. 

For instance, if you are experiencing stomach pain when you go to work, that could be an indication that you may want to consider setting boundaries at work or creating a workspace that is more accommodating. If you experience anxiety when you're around a particular person or group, then it may be time to think about distancing yourself from them. You might also consider talking to the people who make you anxious. They may be able to help you resolve your feelings. 

Medication

Working alongside your doctor, you both may agree on a pharmaceutical solution that may aid the symptoms. However, if anxiety is causing your stomach pain, medication may not alleviate the problem wholly. Medication coupled with other forms of therapy often provides better relief. Always speak to your doctor before starting or stopping any form of medication.

Is your stomach trying to tell you something?

Meditation, yoga, or exercise

Along with medication, changes in diet, and identifying triggers, you might consider practicing yoga, meditation, or a new exercise program. Physical activity has frequently been shown to be helpful for stress management. Even something as simple as deep breathing can lower cortisol levels, potentially reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety.

There can be many options to try that match various abilities and preferences. If you're looking for relaxation to counteract your anxiety, then meditation or something else along those lines may be a good addition to your normal routine.

How therapy can help

If anxiety is a normal part of your life, there may be ways to be proactive. Consulting a doctor is advised, and online therapy can provide mental health advice from qualified professionals. Mental health treatment plans can help with managing stress and implementing life changes that provide people with a sense of calmness and health. Attending therapy online, rather than in person, is often more comfortable for those experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.

A 2020 study explored the effectiveness of digital mental health interventions. Researchers discovered that the participants of the study generally displayed a significant positive result in their anxiety. If you believe your anxiety might be correlated to the stomach discomfort you are experiencing, online therapy can be a great tool to relieve anxiety and the physical symptoms that may accompany it.

Takeaway

Stomach pain and anxiety can be unpleasant, especially when they’re experienced at the same time. Together, stress and stomach issues may put you at risk of experiencing serious mental and physical health concerns. Consider your many options, like attending therapy sessions, speaking with your doctor, and making diet and lifestyle changes, to potentially experience less anxiety-induced stomach pain.

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