While many people have experienced the negative side of butterflies in your stomach, if you have high-functioning anxiety, the daily reality of your stress and discomfort might be masking where your stomach issues are actually be coming from. Anxiety and digestion are fundamentally intertwined.
Even if you haven't realized it yet, there's a good chance your digestion is being affected if you live with high-functioning anxiety. "Digestive issues related to anxiety are not uncommon," Caleb Backe, Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics, tells Bustle. "The crossover between the gut and brain means that when the brain is under stress, the stomach responds with stress." So regardless of how good you are at coping with or operating under stress, your body may still be dealing with the issue in noticeable ways.
Luckily, there are ways to tell whether your digestive issues are anxiety-related, or due to a separate underlying cause. And if your anxiety is the cause, finding ways to cope with your disorder can, in turn, help your gut feel better. "In fact, the best way to manage [gastroenterological] effects of anxiety is to treat the underlying anxiety," registered dietician (RD), Stephanie Bostic, PhD, tells Bustle. And if you find that these symptoms are impacting your life, or getting worse, working with both a mental health professional and a doctor can help you track and deal with your digestive issues in the most holistic way.
Here are eight signs your high-functioning anxiety is affecting your digestion, according to experts.
1. You've Developed Acid Reflux
If you have noticed recently having more trouble digesting acidic foods, your anxiety might be the culprit. This relationship is especially likely if you're going through a period of more stress than usual.
"Anxiety increases the amount of acid produced in the stomach," Backe says. "If you find yourself constantly dealing with heartburn or acid reflux this could be a sign of a digestive issue related to anxiety." So talk to your therapist or doctor (or both) to find a solution that works for you.
2. You're Dealing With Regular Stomach Cramping
If you know you have high-functioning anxiety, and have also been dealing with stomach cramps of the non-period variety, your anxiety might be the culprit.
"Your stomach is literally under stress when you’re suffering from anxiety, causing it to contract, which leads to stomach cramps," Backe says. "Out of the blue stomach cramps, specifically during times of heightened anxiety, might be a sign that you need to take a break from whatever is stressing you out." If you notice the cramping happening in a period of prolonged or heightened stress, then the chances of your cramping being due to anxiety are especially high.
3. You Get Diarrhea Before Big Moments
If you have high-functioning anxiety, chances are you get more nervous or stressed before a big event. And no matter how well you cope, these feelings could be the reason you've noticed your digestion gets out of whack before an important moment comes up.
"Ever noticed how right before a stressful event like a big work meeting or an important exam your bodily functions are haywire?" Backe says. "Stress [can cause] your digestive contractions to increase [...] leading to diarrhea." If you've been worried about your finicky stomach, keeping track of when these episodes happen may provide you with some insight.
4. You Find Yourself Vomiting When You're Stressed
Norepinephrine is a brain chemical that is found to be affected in people with anxiety, and an ingredient in some anxiety medication. If you are dealing with vomiting, your norepinephrine levels might be being affected by your anxiety.
"[If you're vomiting] norepinephrine may be the culprit," Dr. Bostic says. "It decreases blood flow to the gut and slow release of gastric juices and digestive enzymes." If you're on meds, checking in with your psychiatrist about any possible side effects is crucial.
5. You Are Constipated Without Having Changed Your Diet
One of the norms of living with high-functioning anxiety is a long-term amount of low-level stress. This reality can lead to some less-obvious physical symptoms, like constipation, that are still equally as important to look into and treat.
“Constant anxiety with the steady release of those stress hormones leads to a constant reduction of blood flow to the gut," Dr. Bostic says. "This also means the muscle contractions that push food through the GI tract are slowed, and this can lead to constipation." So, if you feel like you haven't been as regular as you want to be, your anxiety could be at fault. Talking to a registered dietician (RD), or doctor can help.
6. You Feel A Rock In Your Stomach
Norepinephrine doesn't just cause vomiting, it can also create a more low-grade, long-term nausea that sticks around. If you have high-functioning anxiety and are used to feeling "off," your body might be experiencing an imbalance of this chemical.
"Norepinephrine release may be the culprit [of nausea]," similarly because blood isn't flowing as much to your gut, Dr. Bostic says. "If it's the feeling of a rock in your stomach, it's a reasonable guess that norepinephrine is involved." Especially if you're already anxious, you don't deserve to feel this constantly uncomfortable, so getting help is important.
7. You Can Track Your Symptoms Based On Stress
Some signs that your high-functioning anxiety is affecting your digestion are based on non-symptomatic indicators. One of those is when your symptoms occur.
"The biggest telltale sign that digestive issues are anxiety-related is that they come and go depending on the amount and intensity of stressors happening in the person’s life," licensed psychologist and board certified nutrition specialist Nicole Beurkens, PhD, tells Bustle. "It is important to track the presence of symptoms in relation to anxiety-provoking events or triggers. I often have patients (or their parents) keep a journal to track the presence and intensity of digestive symptoms throughout the day and week." With this tracking, you can tell if there's a pattern affecting your digestive issues. If not, it's even more of a sign to go to a doctor for help.
8. Mindfulness Makes It Better
Another example of a sign of anxiety-induced gastrointestinal problems is instead observing what makes these symptoms feel better. If your symptoms are caused by anxiety, they will likely improve if you treat your anxiety first.
Tracing the symptoms to a particular event might feel impossible, especially if your anxiety is the low-grade dread kind, so seeing what comes after can help. “Another concrete sign [that your digestive issues are caused by anxiety] is if you take an anti-anxiety medication or do yoga or a particularly exercise the symptoms in the GI tract should get better," NYC Gastroenterologist Dr. Gina Sam tells Bustle. So you may be able to crack the code yourself.
Regardless, certain symptoms require medical attention, even if their severity varies. "It is important that a patient sees a gastroenterologist if one experiences GI bleeding, continuous pain, nausea, vomiting or weight loss," Dr. Sam says. Luckily, the links between high-functioning anxiety and digestive issues are well known, and different professionals can help you with different concerns about how your brain and gut interact.