Anxiety doesn’t live only in our minds, but in our bodies too — which can be one of the worst parts. Other than racing thoughts, anxiety can look like trouble breathing, feeling hot, chest pain, and stomach cramps.
The latter I’m quite familiar with and have struggled with since I was a kid. Even when I can calm my brain down, my stomach still hurts. It’s frustrating, and I haven’t figured out how to handle it effectively yet, especially since I don’t fully understand why it happens in the first place.
To help myself and others who have this struggle, I asked two therapists for their knowledge and advice.
Why anxiety can cause stomach cramps
“Anxiety is tied to our central nervous system and works as our body’s alert/alarm system,” said Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC, a counselor who specializes in anxiety and attachment-related trauma, “That same alert system has triggers that are housed in our stomach and chest, so when it’s alerted or triggered, our stomachs are the place it rings the alarm.”
“Anxiety puts stress on the body, which manifests in these physical symptoms,” said Kruti Patel, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Deep Eddy Psychotherapy. She then shared the three main ways in which anxiety can lead to stomach pain, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), abdominal tension, and digestion. “Stress can cause tension in the abdomen, which can tire out these muscles and result in discomfort,” she explained. “When we are stressed, it can alter hormone levels, which can result in bloating or intestinal pain.”
Remedies for stomach cramps caused by anxiety
According to Dr. Patel, the following five recommendations aren’t a cure, but they can help — especially if you do them proactively.
Both Dr. Patel and Johnson first suggested deep breathing and meditation. “This can help you stay in the present moment, bring more calm to your nervous system, and help you focus on what’s going on right now,” Dr. Patel said.
“Deep breathing helps our brains open back up and gives a clear pathway to our stomach so we can process what we are thinking and feeling,” Johnson explained.
Avoiding caffeine is another helpful idea. “Caffeine, especially coffee, is highly acidic and a stimulant. This will only exacerbate anxiety and will also irritate your bowels,” Dr. Patel said. “Try to drink something that won’t irritate your digestive system, like herbal teas.”
And besides herbal teas, drinking more water is a good choice. “Drinking water also triggers a calming mechanism and provides hydration,” Johnson said.
Additionally, don’t forget to exercise, even in simple ways like walking or stretching. “Physical movement is a great way to reduce stress and also releases endorphins, which trigger a positive feeling in your body,” Dr. Patel said. “Moving your body, especially walking, allows our brains to process information and calms down the central nervous system,” Johnson added.
Lastly, try grounding techniques and focusing on what you can control. “Grounding techniques provide a positive distraction while also returning the body or central nervous system back into a calm state,” Johnson said.
For instance, focus on what you can do in the present moment, such as touching items near you, listening to your surroundings, and reciting something you know well.
Dr. Patel reminds us to engage in these practices often and before stressful situations, if possible. “Most importantly, remember to do these tips regularly to prevent stress, versus doing these tips to react to stress already being present,” she said.