Do you get ‘butterflies’ in your stomach when you are nervous?
Does your stomach get ‘tied in knots’ or you get ‘sick to your stomach’ thinking about certain situations?
Are you someone who gets that sudden need to rush to the toilet when you’re anxious?
Or perhaps you suffer with IBS, IBD or Crohns Disease and your symptoms are aggravated when you’re feeling stressed or anxous?
If this is you, you are not alone.
There’s a reason we use phrases like:
A gut feeling
My stomach is in knots
I’ve got butterflies
I had to make a gut-wrenching decision
I need an anxious poo.
This is because our brain and gut are linked in what is known as the gut-brain connection.
What is the Gut-Brain Connection?
Your brain and nerves that control your body are called the Central Nervous System (CNS) and this is divided into 2 parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.
However, researchers now say that there is a third part to this nervous system, known as your Enteric Nervous System (ENS).
The ENS is two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract from oesophagus to rectum. Although it can’t help you problem-solve or pick out a dress for your upcoming party like your brain does, it does play a fundamental role in managing your digestion. This starts from the moment you swallow your food and enzymes are released to help with breaking the food down - although actually it can happen even before that when we think about food - all the way to elimination.
The gut-brain axis is a term that is used to describe the two-way communication between the CNS and ENS, linking the emotional centres of the brain with the functioning of the gut. The connection is so strong that researchers have gone so far to describe the gut as a your ‘second brain.’ That is, the very thought of eating can trigger the release of chemicals and juices in the stomach.
Unfortunately, it works the other way too – a troubled gut can influence your mental state and your mental state can affect your gut.
In actual fact, virtually every gut function is sensitive to stress. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is so sensitive to your emotions and feelings that stomach issues are one of the most common physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.
How Stress Affects the Gut
When you are stressed, the nervous system sends signals to your gut and intestines. Hormones and chemicals are then released by your body and enter your digestive tract, where they trigger the muscles involved in digestion. This puts your body into ‘fight-flight- freeze’ mode and physiological changes take place in the body. You may experience a heightened state of awareness, faster breathing and heart rate, elevated blood pressure and an increase in muscle tension.
When an individual becomes stressed enough to trigger the 'fight-flight-freeze' response, digestion slows or even stops so that the body can focus all of its internal energy to facing that perceived threat (this can be real or imagined). This can affect your digestive system in a number of ways including:
Causing your esophagus to spasm
Increasing the acid in your stomach, causing indigestion
Loss of appetite
Experiencing nausea, cramping, bloating or constipation
Your body wanting to expel waste, causing vomiting or diarrhea.
Anxiety and Gut Issues
When we are stressed hormones are released. Overtime this can cause chemical imbalances within our body and lead to anxiety, sleep issues and depression. It can also cause people to eat poorly, smoke and/or drink too much alcohol or caffeine — all habits that can trigger stomach issues and pain.
Stress can also have a negative effect on the microorganisms that live in your digestive tract, affecting antibody production and decreasing blood flow and oxygen to the stomach. It can contribute to bloating, burping or gassiness by making foods difficult to swallow or increasing the amount of air swallowed. This can slow down the digestive process, causing gut bacteria to create gas.
Stress can also increase the risk for or exacerbate symptoms of the following GI conditions or gut dysfunctions:
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS)
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
IBS is said to affect 5–10% of the global population and up to one-third of people with IBS also experience anxiety or depression.
Irritation in the gastrointestinal system results in signals being sent to the central nervous system that trigger mood changes, which could explain why so many people with IBS and bowel problems also have anxiety and/or depression. In fact, research has indicated that people who have at least one gastrointestinal symptom are more likely to have an anxiety disorder or depression than those without any GI symptoms.
With the rush of a fast-paced lifestyle that we all live in and the daily stresses we encounter, it is no surprise that the number of people with digestive issues are on the rise too, with more people than ever experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What to Do About Anxiety and Stomach Issues
If you have unexplained, unintentional weight loss, chronic symptoms of gas or pain, see blood in your vomit or stool or suspect that you may be suffering with GI issues, it is vital that you see a doctor.
One of the key parts in managing your gut health and alleviating GI symptoms is stress managment. Managing stress is important for everyone, but learning to manage your anxiety and stress while treating your gastrointestinal symptoms can be the most beneficial approach for helping you deal with both issues. Natually when we are less stressed, our gut is happier and our ability to manage pain and make healthy choices increases.
5 Tips to Manage Stress for Better Gut Health
1. Prioritise sleep
Getting enough sleep is important for both your mental, physical and emotional health. Sleep repairs, relaxes and rejuvenates our body and can help reverse the effect of stress. To read more about tips to help get a better night's sleep read my post here.
2. Regular exercise
Physical activity relieves tension and stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins which are feel good chemicals, which act as natural painkillers. It gets your colon going and helps move gas along so it doesn't become trapped in your system.
Exercise also helps maintain healthy digestion, as it gets your colon going and helps move gas along so it doesn't become trapped in your system.
Gentle forms of exercise such as yoga or light stretching are also beneficial too as they promote that mind-body connection. There is a adbundance of studies that show that breathing techniques and yoga are helpful interventions for relieving stress, anxiety, and depression and improving quality of life in people with IBD.
Much of our anxiety is caused by our mind worrying about worst-case scenarios or ruminating over the past. If you find yourself obsessing or thinking about things negatively, try to challenge those thoughts - is there evidence to support these thoughts? And consider what you would say to a loved one if they shared these thoughts with you.
4. Learn how to set boundaries.
Thinking you can do it all creates unnecessary pressure and can led to overwhelm and burn out. Learn how to say no politely (but firmly) and consider what you put your energy into. Don’t feel obliged to give a detailed explanation for your reason why - a simple, 'I’d love to help but I’m afraid I'm super busy at the moment,' is usually suffice. But also remember that 'No' is a complete sentence.
There are parts and functions of our body that we have no conscious control over and this includes the gut-brain connection. However, Hypnotherapy can help you train those areas and relieve stress, which as I mentioned above, plays a vital part in how we manage our stomach issues and symptoms. If our two brains communicate with each other, then therapy that can help one should help the other.
The process of Hypnotherapy itself is positive, forward-looking and relaxing. The combination of talk therapy and use of hypnosis, which combines deep relaxation with positive indirect suggestions for effective gastrointestinal function, can be helpful for people whose symptoms occur even without obvious stress.
In my practice I support people who are on paths in their journey: some who have recently been diagnosed with a GI condition, others who were diagnosed years ago, as well as people who without a diagnosis but are fed up of having their digestive tract dictate how they run their life.
Stress/anxiety/stomach issues can become a vicious cycle as once you suffer with these conditions, the condition itself can become a source of anxiety, exacerbating the symptoms and causing further stress and anxiety around the topic.
For example, I worked with a client who had developed agoraphobia (fear of leaving her home) because her anxiety caused her to experience diarrhoea and she was so scared that she would be caught short of a toilet if she went out. After just one session her symptoms had reduced and after session four she had built up enough confidence to leave the house and now regularly travels for work.
Another lady I worked with suffered with such painful constipation that she shared with me in her initial consultation that she would ‘pop laxatives like tic tacs’ and would then have to be restricted to when she could go out as she waited for the laxatives to work. I helped her to understand her behaviours and where this fear came from. By session four she had stopped taking laxatives and was able to go about her life without obsessing about where the nearest toilet was.
Although specific signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety vary from person to person, the potential to harm your health, emotional well-being, and relationships with others is real. Whether you suffer with a diagnosed gastrointestinal disorder or suffer with slight stomach issues, learning to manage your stress can help have a positive impact on your gut and how you go about your day-to-day life.
To find out more about how Hypnotherapy can support you, get in touch to book a free telephone consultation.