For anyone who’s had a sudden onset of tummy troubles before or after a big event, they know how frustrating it can be to manage a nervous stomach. The symptoms can mimic more serious issues, and occasionally, be caused by them. Given that it could correlate to your mental health or your digestive health, how does one differentiate between episodic, anxiety-related digestive distress and a sign of an underlying condition?
Symptoms of a Nervous Stomach
While a nervous stomach isn’t a diagnosis or a recognized disorder at all, for some people, stress can directly link to experiencing digestive troubles. This can manifest as a single experience or a regular occurrence when you have stress. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), conversely, is a diagnosable syndrome with criteria that must be met in order to be classified as such. Most notably, there must be a change in bowel habits and abdominal pain at least once per week for the past three to six months. If your symptoms are not this consistent and seem to be more linked to occasional stressful events, you could be dealing with a nervous stomach. Symptoms can include:
- An anxious feeling
- A fluttery feeling in the stomach
- Cramping and stomach tightness
- Shivering and muscle twitches
- Feeling overly full or bloated after eating
- Increased urgency to urinate or move bowels
- Gagging or vomiting in extreme cases (1, 2, 3)
If you suffer from issues related to a nervous stomach, some combination of lifestyle changes and simple home remedies can help provide relief.
- Herbs: Some herbal remedies can be antispasmodic! Try teas with peppermint, lemon balm, or lavender to stop symptoms like cramping, gas, and stomach upset. Ginger can be especially good for curbing nausea. Try chewing a piece of ginger root or ginger candy, or sipping ginger ale or ginger tea.
- Avoid caffeine: Caffeine, especially coffee, can both stimulate the bowels and worsen anxiety. If you’re feeling wound up and think it could trigger your symptoms, reach for an herbal tea instead.
- Practice mindfulness; deep breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga are all excellent ways to focus off of your anxiety, and instead onto your body and the present moment.
- Schedule time for self-care: Don’t forget to put aside time for yourself to relax, whatever that means for you. Whether it’s a bath with essential oils, time with a good book, or pursuing a creative pursuit like painting or music, make sure to schedule at least a small block of time for yourself each day when you’re able to be completely at ease.
- Talk about it: Conversations with a therapist, trusted friend, or family member can help you cope with anxiety and put things into perspective (1, 2, 3).
Where are these symptoms coming from?
Usually, a nervous stomach develops because you’re simply nervous, and is a normal manifestation of stress for many people. The brain and gut are connected by the vagus nerve, which sends signals back and forth between them. When anxiety crops up, it can cause digestive disturbances (3).
If you have frequent tummy issues, you should pay attention to your digestive health and try to eliminate stressors. Although it is usually anxiety-driven, in occasional cases it could be a more serious problem. If this is an issue that crops up for you regularly, you should speak with your doctor to rule out anything more serious. Some of the possibilities include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Peptic ulcer disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Celiac disease
- Anxiety disorder
- Gallstones (very rare)
- Vagus nerve damage (very rare) (1, 3)
If an underlying condition has been ruled out, and you and your doctor have determined that stress is the driving factor, here are some tips to head any tummy troubles off at the pass:
- Eat smaller meals! If your digestion is affected, it can be better to eat smaller portions and snacks throughout the day instead of large meals. Tip: Also try some bitter greens, like endive, radicchio, or mustard greens. Bitter greens may aid in digestion by stimulating the flow of gastric juices. If on a low FODMAP diet, make sure to check which amounts are safe using the Monash app.
- Exercise can help digestion and is also a great way to shake off stress and work through anxiety.
- Manage stress. If you’re going through a particularly stressful time, your issues with a nervous stomach may subside on their own after it passes. If it seems to be a more ongoing issue though, you’ll need to find ways to manage your stress, through meditation, breathing, or exercise, for example.
- Optimize gut health. Sometimes a nervous stomach can be a result of digestive problems plus anxiety issues. If you suspect both are at play, focus on eating a variety of foods that you know work well for you and avoiding any triggers. Try introducing more fiber-rich foods or probiotic foods, if you tolerate them. Work with your doctor to find the best solutions for your individual health, and speak with them before making any sudden changes or introducing supplements (1,3).
- “How to Calm an Anxious Stomach: The Brain-gut Connection” aada.org. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, July 19, 2018. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-calm-anxious-stomach-brain-gut-connection.
- Nall, Rachel. “Causes and Treatments for a Nervous Stomach” medicalnewstoday.com. Medical News Today, April 25, 2018. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321611.
- White, Adrian. “Do You Have a Nervous Stomach?” healthline.com. Healthline, March 29, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/nervous-stomach.