Stomach pain, at the minimum, is uncomfortable and unpleasant. In worst cases, stomachaches can be quite debilitating—making it difficult to move, eat, or sleep well. If your overall health and diet haven’t changed, but lately, you’re experiencing more stomach pain, it might be a sign of stress.
We consulted experts in psychology and integrative medicine to explain why stress can manifest physically and how to differentiate stress-induced stomach pain from indigestion.
The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Anxiety, anger, happiness, sadness, — all of these feelings (and others) may trigger symptoms in your gut.
The brain has a direct impact on the intestines and stomach. For instance, the very thought of taking food can release the stomach’s juices before food reaches there. This link goes both ways. An anxious brain can send signals to the gut, just as a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain. Therefore, intestinal distress or a person’s nervous stomach can be the product or cause of stress, anxiety, or depression. That’s because of the gastrointestinal (GI) system and brain, and they are closely connected.
This is specifically true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no apparent physical cause. For such functional GI disorders, it is challenging to try to heal a distressed gut without considering the role of stress and emotion.
Can Stress Cause Stomach Pain?
Stomach pain has many reasons, and stress may be one of them. It can hamper with digestion because of the gut-brain connection via the vagus nerve. Our intestines and stomach have their unique nervous system called the enteric nervous system, and these nerves respond to the same neurotransmitters and stress hormones and that our brains do(1).
This means the hormones you let out when you’re stressed can enter into the digestive system and interfere with digestion, causing stomach pain.
While stress can cause abdominal pain, it’s crucial to rule out any underlying etiology before naming stress as the reason. This ensures patients and doctors don’t overlook any serious medical issues.
How Can You Distinguish Indigestion From Stress-Induced Stomach Pain?
It may be challenging to differentiate stress-related abdominal pain from other forms of abdominal pain. They often present similar symptoms with the same intensity. And they can be linked.
Using probiotic supplements is your best bet to help control symptoms if you have food-related or common digestive issues. Chew your food thoroughly, slow down while you eat, and opt for easily digestible foods. Once your digestion is improved, it will be simple to tell if stress is elevating symptoms or creating your stomach pain.
Stomach pain can be a combination of stress as well as regular indigestion because of the connection between your mind and your gut. The gut microbiome is a critical portion of this link. There are 3 to 5 times more serotonin receptors in the gut than the brain. This may be the reason why the gut microbiome is closely linked to our mood state. So even if it begins as a physical ailment, stress can deteriorate any pre-existing stomach pain.
Another way to narrow down your primary triggers is by creating a daily pain diary with your doctor. When you begin to experience stomach pain, write down what foods you’ve consumed, the time of day, your current emotional state, and what kind of physical activity you’ve participated in. All of these points can help your physician conclude why you may be having pain.
It’s also essential to remember that stress typically affects the whole body—not just digestion—and can lead to rapid breathing, a general feeling of racing thoughts, and nervousness.
Stomach pain regularly manifests in some clear time frame after the stressor happens. For some people, it’s instant, and for others, it’s somewhat delayed. If you’re able to figure out the stressor, whether emotional or physical —responsible for your pain, you may be able to control it before it becomes severe.
How Can You Manage Stomach Problems From Stress?
If you feel stress is the culprit, one of the best ways to defeat stress- or anxiety -induced stomach pain is to practice deep breathing techniques. It allows our brain and gut to communicate with each other and tells it to start slowing down. Exercising also helps to reduce stress.
When Should You See a Physician?
Usually, both indigestion and stress can be treated with a change in medications or diet. There are two reasons you should see a physician for indigestion: If you experience alarm features or when the symptoms persist over time or. Alarm features include fever, vomiting, weight loss, bleeding in vomit or a stool, or if you’ve had a previous history of chronic stomach problems.
When it comes to stress, see a physician if the problem is chronic (happens often and continues for months at a time). If not treated, stress can impact your overall well being.
Whether your stomach pain is caused by stress or indigestion, it’s essential to pay attention to your body and what it’s trying to communicate to you. The more you are aware of the causes and what triggers it, the better able you are equipped with what you need to do to reduce these feelings and healthily manage them. If you experience debilitating or frequent stomach pain, be sure to speak with your doctor to get to the bottom of the problem and determine the best course of action.