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Pain in the pit of your stomach and anxiety
Heartburn, a feeling of emptiness in your stomach, a sharp pain like if you had a knot tightly tied in the pit of your stomach . . . If all of this coincides with a long period of stress, and once a gastric condition has been ruled out, you may be dealing with one of the most common symptoms of anxiety.
Emotional symptoms affect the digestive system in the form of nausea, heartburn, or pain in the pit of your stomach. For some people, situations such as public speaking, starting a new job, or taking an exam can cause these stomach symptoms.
The connection between the brain and the digestive system is very strong. The gastrointestinal tract is very sensitive to emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, and joy.
Stress can lead to an imbalance in the intestinal flora, which results in symptoms in the digestive tract. These symptoms are often aggravated by previous stomach problems, e.g. gastritis. For some people, the stomach is the weak point through which anxiety manifests itself. Colic, changes in appetite, gas and diarrhea, slow digestion, nausea, heartburn, a distended or swollen stomach, and tingling or pressure in the stomach are some of the gastric symptoms connected with anxiety.
We are learning more and more about the sophistication of our digestive system. The gastrointestinal tract has its own nervous system, called the enteric nervous system. Nerve endings in the stomach respond directly to stress hormones released by the brain that send extreme flight or fight reactions to the amygdala. When this mechanism is activated, the stress hormones signal the stomach to slow down its activity so that the muscles and lungs can pump more blood to cope with the presumed dangerous situation identified by the brain.
For example, an important event such as an exam or a presentation is a very frequent cause of stomach stress among adults, but it also affects children and adolescents. So is social anxiety (the fear of being judged or rejected by others), the fear that something terrible will happen when speaking in public, or simply the fear of being the centre of attention for a few minutes.
Stomach anxiety is also common in people with a fear of losing control. Hypochondria (the fear of becoming ill or believing that one is suffering from symptoms of life-threatening illnesses); insecurity; and unstable situations such as job loss, job change, moving house, break-ups and divorce can also trigger stomach anxiety.
The most effective way to avoid gastric symptoms is to quickly reduce the anxiety that is causing them. Psychologist Cinthya Molina at SHA Wellness Clinic explains that there are several techniques to reduce anxiety relatively quickly. Among them, the expert recommends deep breathing: ‘It can help reduce anxiety by activating the body’s relaxation response. Take slow, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Concentrate on making your exhalation longer than your inhalation’.
Practising mindfulness is another of Dr Molina’s recommendations for reducing anxiety. ‘It’s about focusing all your attention on the present moment, observing your thoughts and sensations without judgement. Practising mindfulness regularly can help reduce our anxiety and improve our emotional well-being’.
When faced with an anxiety-provoking situation, Dr Molina recommends finding a distraction. ‘Do activities that divert your attention away from the anxiety. You can read a book, listen to music, watch a movie, practice a hobby, or participate in any other activity that you find enjoyable and that changes the focus of what has caused your anxiety. Finally, the expert recommends ‘talking to someone you trust’. ‘Share your feelings and concerns with a close friend or family member. Sometimes expressing what you’re feeling can relieve anxiety’.
Spending time on self-care and leading a healthy lifestyle are two good strategies to reduce stomach anxiety. It is essential to eat a balanced diet, which not only helps to keep the body healthy, but also helps to keep stress levels in check. Following a proper diet will also help to reduce stomach inflammation and control blood pressure.
Establishing a healthy sleep routine can also go a long way toward spacing out episodes of anxiety. This requires discipline and regular mealtimes and avoiding eating and drinking alcohol for at least two hours before bedtime. Practising yoga is the ultimate tool for discharging energy and getting a better night’s rest.