Stomach problems, such as nausea and diarrhea, are among the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. One reason for this may be an imbalance in the gut microbiome due to fight-or-flight hormones.
Anxiety is a normal bodily response to threat or danger. However, for some people, anxiety can be frequent and overwhelming.
In this article, we outline what anxiety is and how it may cause nausea. We also offer some simple coping strategies that people with anxiety can try, and we explain when to seek medical help.
Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, or unease that can occur in response to stress or perceived danger.
When a person is anxious, their brain releases chemicals called neurotransmitters, which put the body into a high state of alert. This process prepares the body for “fight or flight” in response to a perceived threat.
Some of the neurotransmitters enter the digestive tract where they can upset the gut microbiome — the delicate balance of microorganisms that live inside the gut. Imbalances in the gut microbiome can result in nausea.
Other possible gastrointestinal symptoms of anxiety include:
- stomach cramps
- loss of appetite or unnatural hunger
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- peptic ulcers
Symptoms of anxiety that do not relate to the gut include:
- fast or heavy breathing
- rapid heartbeat
- muscle tension
- frequent need to urinate
A certain level of anxiety is a normal response to uncertainty and danger. However, some people experience anxiety so frequently that it interferes with their everyday life. People with this type of anxiety may have an anxiety disorder.
There are many different types of anxiety disorder, each of which may cause nausea and other gastrointestinal symptoms.
Some examples include:
Generalized anxiety disorder: Intense worry about everyday aspects of life, such as health, safety, or money, which lasts for 6 months or more.
Phobia: An irrational fear of a specific thing or situation, such as spiders or being in enclosed spaces.
Social anxiety: An overwhelming feeling of self-consciousness during social situations. The sense that people are watching or judging can worsen the symptoms.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): An anxiety disorder that can develop after a traumatic experience. The person may experience vivid dreams, flashbacks, or tormented memories. Other symptoms may include:
- difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- outbursts of anger
- emotional withdrawal
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): A disorder that involves obsessive thoughts and compulsive acts. One of the most common examples of OCD is a fear of contamination, which often leads to repetitive hand washing.
Panic disorder: Frequent, unprovoked feelings of terror or impending doom. Other symptoms tend to include:
- rapid heartbeat
In most cases, anxiety is not a cause for concern because it is part of the body’s natural response to stress, threat, or danger.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) offer several tips for managing everyday stress and anxiety. These include:
- Taking time to relax: Activities such as yoga, meditation, and listening to music can help a person reduce their stress levels.
- Trying to maintain a positive attitude: People can practice replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Getting plenty of sleep: The human body needs additional rest during times of stress.
- Exercising daily: Daily exercise releases chemicals called endorphins, which can relax a person and lift their mood. Exercise can also help by promoting sleep.
- Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake: These can aggravate anxiety and may even trigger panic attacks in some people.
- Talking to someone: A person may find it helpful to talk to a trusted friend or family member about their anxiety.
The ADAA recommend that people experiencing an episode of anxiety try taking slow, deep breaths in and out, as well as counting to ten slowly and repeating this as necessary.
Some people who experience anxiety find it beneficial to understand their specific triggers. Triggers are situations or events that can bring about episodes of anxiety.
Anyone who feels as though anxiety is interfering with their everyday life should speak to a doctor. Several different treatments are available. In most cases, a doctor will prescribe a combination of talking therapies and medication.
Talking therapies can help people cope with an anxiety disorder. Examples include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
The focus of CBT is to change unhelpful patterns of thinking. During CBT, a therapist helps the person identify thoughts that make them anxious. The person then learns strategies for reacting to the thoughts in a more positive and constructive way.
This type of therapy attempts to address the cause of a person’s anxiety through self-reflection and self-examination. It may be useful for anxiety resulting from a traumatic experience or deep-seated emotional conflict.
In some cases, a doctor may recommend medication. Drugs tend to be particularly helpful when a person uses them in combination with talking therapies.
The drugs that doctors most commonly prescribe for anxiety include:
Benzodiazepines, which include clonazepam (Klonopin) and alprazolam (Xanax), ease anxiety. However, since there is a high risk of physical dependence, doctors will generally only recommend them for short term use.
They may sometimes prescribe the drug buspirone (Buspar) for longer term anxiety relief.
Doctors often prescribe antidepressants, such as sertraline (Zoloft), for the long term treatment of panic disorder and generalized anxiety.
Anxiety is a natural response to danger or a threat. It happens when the brain releases neurotransmitters to prepare the body for fight or flight.
When some of these neurotransmitters get into the digestive tract, they upset the gut microbiome, and this can cause stomach symptoms that include nausea.
For most people, anxiety is nothing to worry about, as it is a normal bodily response to stress. There are many techniques that people can use to manage stress and anxiety in their everyday life.
Sometimes, frequent feelings of anxiety may indicate an anxiety disorder. A person should see a doctor if anxiety is interfering with their everyday life.