Being stressed causes a number of very profound changes in the body and the brain and these can have huge implications for your health and wellbeing. While most people are aware that stress is 'a problem', few people realize the extent to which it can change the chemistry and 'state' of the body or just how many different symptoms and side effects can occur as a result of it.
For these reasons, it's very easy to overlook the role that stress might have in various unpleasant symptoms. If you find yourself with bad stomachache for example, it might not occur immediately that this could be related to stress. In fact though, there are many ways in which stress and stomach pain can be connected. Here we will look at what stress stomach pain is and how it comes about.
Stress is regulated largely by the release of hormones like adrenaline. These then have the effect of causing the muscles to contract and the heart rate to increase. Muscle tension in the stomach is actually what causes us to get the sensation of 'butterflies' when we're nervous and in some more extreme cases this can lead to severe stomach pain.
The Second Brain
There also seems to be a much more direct connection between the stomach and the brain. In fact, the gut contains over 100 million neurons that link it directly to the brain and this connection is sometimes referred to as the 'brain gut axis'.
When you are stressed, your body believes it is under threat from a predator or another physical danger and it responds by increasing blood flow to the muscles and the brain. The idea here is to provide you with more muscle power and focus which could help if you needed to outrun or fight a predator.
The question you should be asking though is where all this extra blood comes from. And the answer is that your body is redirecting blood flow away from less 'pressing' tasks such as digestion. This then means that you'll be more likely to suffer indigestion if you're stressed.
Stress may cause your body to produce excess gas and trapped wind which is another cause of stress stomach pain. This comes about due to hyperventilation – when we're stressed we breathe much more quickly which can cause us to swallow excess air.
Stress is also linked to diarrhea as well as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). This is again due to contractions during stress which affect the colon.
Another impact of stress is to make us more sensitive to all kinds of pain which is what makes stress stomach pain particularly uncomfortable. Stress heightens our senses once again because this would have had survival value in a natural setting – helping us to better react to potential predators and to assess our surroundings. If you already have stomach pain though, this also makes that feel worse and makes you more aware of it. Pain is very much psychological and is regulated heavily by our attention and focus.
In many cases, stress stomach pain won't be the result of any one of these things but rather a combination of multiple factors. If you have indigestion for instance, you swallow excess air and you have heightened sensitivity, then all these things will contribute to stomach pain.