My Gut Reaction: Stress and the Brain-Gut Connection
by Ken Goodman, LCSW
Stomach problems are one of the most common symptoms of stress. Our gastrointestinal tract, also known as our gut, is especially sensitive to stress and emotions. Because of this, stress can exact a very real physical toll on your digestive system and greatly impact your quality of life.
Like the brain, the gut is full of nerves. It contains the largest area of nerves outside the brain and for this reason is often referred to as “the little brain.” Our brain and digestive tract share many of the same nerve connections.
When you are stressed, some of the hormones and chemicals released by your body enter your digestive tract, where they interfere with digestion. They have a negative effect on your gut flora (microorganisms that live in the digestive track and aid digestion), and they decrease antibody production. The resulting chemical imbalance can cause a number of gastrointestinal conditions.
And it’s not just single stressful events that affect the stomach.
Long-term stress takes its toll. Common stress-related gut symptoms and conditions range from indigestion, stomach cramps, diarrhea, loss of appetite, unnatural hunger, and nausea, to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), and peptic ulcers.
Five Tips for Reducing Stress
Although stress is a normal part of life and impossible to avoid, there is good news. You can manage your stress so it reduces the impact on your stomach. Here are five simple tips that can help you reduce stress AND the related tummy troubles.
- Take short breaks and breathe. When done right, this can really help. Every few hours, stop what you’re doing and do one minute of slow, quiet deep breathing. You’ll be amazed at the results. (See below for a link to a free audio program about relaxation breathing.)
- Just say “no.” Trying to do everything and please everybody all the time is a surefire recipe for stress. Know your limits and when you’re close to reaching them; don’t accept additional responsibilities.
- Exercise or do yoga. Physical activity is a great way to reduce stress, even if it’s for only 15 minutes a day. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, which interact with receptors in your brain and trigger a positive feeling in your body.
- Instead of stressing over things you can’t control, focus on the things you can control, such as how you choose to react to problems. Your reaction is your choice.
- Listen to a guided relaxation exercise daily. You’ll not only feel relaxed while doing it, but most people also experience a sense of calm that lasts for hours afterward. <Check out Stress Free, a relaxation CD with six guided exercises.> (NOTE: This should link to the Stress Free page)
Other Important Thoughts to Consider
It takes effort to reduce stress and its impact on the stomach. These tools can work if you implement them correctly and if you make them a daily priority. However, expecting immediate results and 100% absence of symptoms will only increase your frustration and symptoms.
Acceptance of some degree of stomach discomfort is important. If tackling all of this alone feels too much, seek the help and guidance of a therapist who specializes in anxiety and stress. Also, take a look at your diet. Certain foods are known to irritate the stomach.
Finally, consult with a doctor and try the recommended medical treatments. Many stomach disorders cannot be resolved with stress reduction alone. You must address the biological, psychological, and social aspects when trying to resolve gut-related problems.