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Anxiety and nausea: 5 tips to treat both

Anxiety and nausea: 5 tips to treat both

For better or worse, anxiety is part of the human experience. It’s something all people experience from time to time. But severe, ongoing anxiety can significantly impact your emotional, mental, and physical health.

In particular, anxiety can be associated with physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and anxiety headache.

If you’re suffering from anxiety-related nausea, here are 5 effective strategies you can try right now to combat the symptoms of both.

What causes anxiety?

The reality is, there are many causes of anxiety. The feeling of anxiety can be part of how we’re wired as humans, something we experience in the aftermath of trauma or loss, or associated with medical conditions, such as hypertension, to name a few possibilities.

Anxiety, part of the built-in stress response system, is an intelligent part of evolutionary biology. The feeling of anxiety can help you mobilize in the face of something dangerous or threatening. You may have heard it called the “fight-or-flight” response.

What exactly happens when your body is preparing to do battle or run for its life? The amygdala, part of the so-called reptilian brain, releases stress hormones that elevate heart rate, increase blood pressure, tense muscles, and cause you to sweat. 

This physiological process takes place before your conscious mind even has a chance to evaluate the threat. It’s probably a good thing if you’re face-to-face with a mountain lion.

In modern times, the stress response can get hijacked and end up causing more harm than good. For people with anxiety disorders, the stress response is no longer adaptive and helpful.

If you have a panic disorder, your brain may have an overactive stress response. This means your brain might register something that’s not objectively dangerous as a serious threat. 

The initial trigger could be as simple as interpreting someone’s facial expression as angry, or it may even be hard to tell what the trigger was.

If you have an anxiety disorder, your neurobiology may react to objectively non-dangerous occurrences as serious threats to safety.

The brain-gut connection 

In recent years, researchers have focused on the connection between the brain and the gut, and there have been incredibly compelling findings.

Here’s an example of the brain-gut connection that will probably be familiar. You might experience excitement, positive or negative, as feeling like you have butterflies in your stomach. 

It could be that you have a new crush, or perhaps you’re interviewing for a competitive job you really want—either way, what’s happening in your mind is triggering a physical reaction in your body. 

But here’s where it gets even more fascinating: your interpretation or outlook determines whether you experience this excitement as something pleasant or unpleasant. A new crush—pretty fun but a nerve-wracking interview, not so much.

So why does an emotional reaction trigger sensations in your stomach? Because the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, activates the vagus nerve. 

This nerve, the longest in your autonomic nervous system, travels from your brain all the way to your gut. Indeed, the vagus nerve plays a significant role in the human gag reflex. Because it spans such a long path from your brain to your colon, the vagus nerve gets its name from the Latin word for “wandering” or “strolling.”

On the way to your gut, this nerve communicates with your parasympathetic nervous system by way of your heart and lungs. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for helping your body relax, as well as for digesting food. 

In simple terms, it’s the system that calms you down after you’ve experienced a physiological anxiety response. This will be important later on when we look at how to activate that system to calm anxiety. 

Physical symptoms of anxiety 

People are often surprised to learn that the experience of anxiety extends far beyond thought patterns that happen in the mind. There are a specific set of physical symptoms you’ll experience in your body after your brain triggers a chemical stress response.

When the body’s stress response system is activated, the brain releases a cascade of different hormones to help protect you from the perceived threat. These hormones cause immediate physical changes in your body.

As we noted, stress hormones up your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature and tighten your muscles in preparation to take action. But, as we’re about to see, these hormones can also cause symptoms like nausea and upset stomach.

Anxiety and stress causing nausea

Because the vagus nerve travels from your brain to your heart, lungs, and gut, anxiety can affect almost your whole body. Anxiety and stress have a striking physical impact on the gastrointestinal tract. 

Here are some of the possible symptoms of anxiety and stress in the digestive system.

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Acid reflux
  • GERD
  • Heartburn
  • Stomach pain
  • Gas and bloating
  • Diarrhea 
  • Constipation

Why anxiety may cause nausea

There has been ample research in recent years to demonstrate the impact of mental health status on the gut. Studies have shown a powerful connection between GERD and anxiety, as well as an association between GI disorders and other mental health conditions like depression. 

Recently, researchers found that you may be more sensitive to GI symptoms when you’re stressed or anxious. For instance, people with acid reflux may experience more pronounced heartburn symptoms when stressed, even though the amount of acid hasn’t changed.

If you have extreme anxiety or you’re particularly emotionally overextended, for instance, because of a global pandemic, you may have more dramatic gastrointestinal symptoms. 

This means that you might experience even more pronounced symptoms like stress, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) 

IBS is another condition that can further exacerbate the GI symptoms caused by stress and anxiety. An estimated 25 – 45 million Americans struggle with IBS, which leads to symptoms like the ones below. 

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Cramping
  • Changes in bowel movements

People with mental health issues are more likely to have IBS, and past trauma may be a risk factor. Though these symptoms are not caused by stress, they can be significantly aggravated by it. 

Treating anxiety & nausea

For many people, the stress response can upset the stomach and cause nausea. In some cases, it’s so intense that people experience anxiety vomiting. 

If you have nausea from anxiety, you can try a few things to relieve the symptoms.

1. Do some deep breathing.

Deep breathing is helpful for both anxiety and nausea. Often when you feel stressed or nauseous, you may start to take shallow breaths. Research shows that controlled, deep breathing can help nausea, especially if you start the exercise as soon as symptoms start.

One of the most straightforward breathing exercises is belly breathing, which stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

  • Put one hand on your heart and one on your belly.
  • Breathe in deeply through your nose and feel the way your belly pushes against your hand.
  • Breathe out slowly, pursing your lips as if you were whistling. If you like, you can even gently push the air out of your belly using your hand.
  • Repeat this cycle for a few rounds.

You can use deep breathing exercises whenever you’re experiencing symptoms.

2. Try a mindfulness exercise.

Mindfulness has been used to help reduce anxiety and nausea. Studies show that meditation, and mindfulness, in particular, help reduce anxiety and stress. 

What’s more, therapies based on mindfulness principles, like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), can help reduce anxiety levels across a wide range of disorders.

Meditation and mindfulness may also help with nausea. One study found that guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation significantly reduced nausea in chemotherapy patients. 

You can practice mindfulness in many ways, but here’s a simple exercise to try now. 

  • Come into your body and take three intentionally deep breaths.
  • Then begin to count your breaths. Count up to 10 before starting over at 1. 
  • If you lose track, just start again at 1. 
  • Witness the thoughts that arise without judging them while continuing to count. 
  • Do this for several rounds, or set a timer for as little or as much time as feels right. 

3. Drink a glass of water.

Even though staying well-hydrated isn’t a treatment for anxiety, a glass of water may reduce intense symptoms. In fact, staying hydrated may actually help prevent anxiety

Drinking water or other clear liquids like sports drinks and herbal teas can also help with nausea. Just make sure to take small, slow sips to make sure you don’t overwhelm your system.

4. Eat something mild.

For some people, hunger can lead to both anxiety and nausea. Low blood sugar can trigger the body’s stress response. Plus, being hungry can cause nausea and other GI symptoms because of higher levels of stomach acid, as well as hunger-related contractions in your stomach.

Even if hunger isn’t the cause of your symptoms, eating a small amount of something mild like saltine crackers, plain rice, or a boiled potato can help settle the stomach. 

There’s no apparent reason why bland, starchy foods help calm an upset stomach. Still, they seem to offer relief for many people experiencing nausea.

5. Rest. 

If all else fails, it may be time to do what you’d typically do when feeling sick: get some rest. It may help put on some comfortable, loose-fitting clothes that don’t press on your abdomen or stomach. 

You can lay down flat on your back if that feels comfortable. But it’s best to prop yourself up in bed with pillows if you have GERD or other issues with stomach acid like reflux. 

Prevention

You can also take measures to prevent anxiety and nausea in the future. If you’re struggling with nausea and anxiety now, there are a few changes you can make that aim at preventing their recurrence going forward. 

1. Take care of your mental health.

Regular exercise, a healthy diet, ample sleep, and meaningful connections with others are great ways to care for your mental health.

2. Avoid foods that are hard on your stomach.

While this suggestion may differ from person to person, it’s generally best to stay away from foods that are greasy, fried, spicy, and high in sugar.

3. Be mindful.

Regular meditation and mindfulness practices not only improve and stabilize your mental health. They can also help reduce the intensity of physical discomfort. Plus, meditation enables you to develop a greater capacity to tolerate distress when you encounter physical and psychological difficulties.

4. Stay hydrated. 

Make sure you’re getting enough water, and try to limit alcohol and caffeine.

When to see a medical professional

While some GI discomfort with anxiety is to be expected, prolonged and severe pain is not. If you’re experiencing ongoing anxiety and nausea that makes it hard for you to function, it’s time to see a medical professional.

Takeaway

  • Anxiety can have a marked impact on your gastrointestinal system. 
  • It’s not uncommon for anxiety to cause nausea and, in some cases, vomiting. 
  • If you’re struggling with nausea related to anxiety, try deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, drinking clear fluids, eating mild foods, and getting some rest.