7 Signs Your Stomach Problems May Be From Mental Health Issues

Aaron Amat/Shutterstock

There is little worse than having habitual stomach pain, especially if you aren’t totally sure what causes it. And while you might have been to a doctor and even tried all kinds of common treatments from probiotic foods to Pepto Bismal, if your belly just continues aching, it could be a sign your stomach issues and mental health are related. And while that might seem strange or even nerve-wracking, rest assured that oftentimes what is going on mentally or emotionally for us ends up manifesting itself in the body through physical symptoms. There are definitely ways to both recognize this is what’s going on, and ways to treat the issue, too!

As counselor Travis McNulty tells Bustle, stomach issues can often be considered your body’s alarm system when it comes to what’s going on with your mental health. “Your stomach is saying, ‘I’m going to manifest your anxiety in a physical symptom,'” McNulty says. “Then you start producing excessive stomach acid since your body is tired and uncomfortable.”

You can think of the pain as your body communicating to you, McNulty says. Then you have the opportunity to listen to your body and identify what might be causing some emotional and psychological suffering.

If this feels like it might ring true for you, consider some of the signs below that might indicate your stomach issues are a sign something deeper is going on.

1. You Also Feel Anxious Or Depressed

This may seem obvious, but if you are dealing with other symptoms of anxiety and depression, this might simply be one of the best indicators that your stomach issues are another element of that condition.

“If you’re experiencing psychological distress like anxiety in addition to your stomach hurting, this is a clear sign there’s a correlation,” McNulty says. Seeking out professional help is the best first step.

2. You Feel Pain During Or Before Social Interactions

Do you often feel that lurch of pain when you have to sit next to a coworker at lunch, or find yourself nauseous before a party?

As McNulty says, social anxiety is very common, and unfortunately, it can be triggered multiple times a day as a result. This can have a profound impact on health long-term.

However, McNulty says that he has experienced many clients who have totally cleared up their stomach issues after recognizing their social anxiety and working on the core underlying issues.

He says that it’s also important to consider your overall physical health when it comes to treating these issues, things like your caffeine intake, diet, exercise, and sleep. It’s all connected, after all!

3. You’ve Been To The Doctor And There Are No Physical Issues

Psychoanalyst Dr. Gita Zarnegar tells Bustle that it is definitely important to rule out any potential physical causes first and foremost, so going to your healthcare provider should be the one of the very first steps when you’ve got stomach issues.

But if you have had a thorough physical exam and ruled out any medical reasons for the cause of your stomach pain, you most likely have some kind of psychological pain that is manifesting itself in your body.

“Your body is honest and if you deny your psychic pain, your body will take over to remind you that you need to pay attention to your psychological wellbeing,” she says. She recommends considering therapy as a way to see what might be going on below the surface.

4. You Feel Free Of Pain When You’re Relaxed

Dr. Zarnegar says that another indicator that your stomach issues might be attached to something psychological is if you feel free of pain in a relaxing and safe environment. If particular stressor is the cause for your emotional unrest, removing that will do a lot to help.

“If the pain is always happening at work but during the weekends you are feeling better, it could be related to some negative environment at work,” she says. Whatever it is, it’s worth exploring to see what options you have to tackle the issue head on. It can also be deeper psychological issues from childhood, as well, and they show up or are triggered by stressful situations.

Even if you have yet to figure out the particular trigger, if you do know that being relaxed helps you to feel better, the more you can incorporate self-care into your habits, the better. Dr. Zarnegar says that working in meditation and breathing exercises is a helpful tool.

5. Your Stomach Ache Goes Away When You Avoid A “Phobia”

You might even know the types of things that make you uncomfortable, or even particular things that you fear big time. Dr. Zarnegar says that if your stomach feels better when you avoid an anxiety-provoking situation such as flying, dating, or public speaking, that might be a hint these things are connected. But avoiding your fears can cause problems, too.

For example, you might really want a romantic partner, and have intense fear and emotional challenges around intimacy that could lead to a physical symptoms like stomach aches, she says. Then when you avoid that fear, like canceling a date, you feel better.

Unfortunately, many of the things we fear the most are things we have to encounter frequently, or are things we want to do to move forward in our lives. These are all issues you might want to tackle with the help of a professional, but things like journaling and meditation can also help you connect to and understand your feelings.

6. You Feel Pain Almost Everyday At The Same Time

You might wake up every morning and feel anxiety before you go to work because your boss really stresses you out, or maybe you only feel anxious when you come home for the night because you live alone and feel uncomfortable being with your own thoughts.

If you are feeling anticipatory anxiety at the same time every day, Dr. Zarnegar says, chances are that there is something in your daily life that is triggering a lot of emotional distress.

“Adopt a non-judgmental attitude about your pain and develop a compassionate stance for your suffering,” she says. Basically don't shame yourself because you have this pain. A kind attitude to yourself is the first step to long-term solutions.

7. You Feel Better When You Talk About Your Stressors

“Talking with a close friend that is non-judgmental and empathetic can give you immediate relief,” Dr. Zarnegar says. If you do find relief in expressing your feelings, this is also an indicator that your stomach issues are connected to your emotional and mental well-being.

Look at your pain as an honest part of you that wants to bring your attention to what needs to be seen and addressed, she says. It makes sense that when you begin to verbalize your feelings, you feel relief.

While it might be uncomfortable to realize there are deeper things going on than simply having digestive issues, know that you aren’t alone when it comes to tackling your mental or emotional well-being.

And even though your stomach is aching, think of your body as a friend, simply indicating that there is more to consider. With help, you can start to heal!

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.