Anxiety Symptom #4: Nausea, Upset Stomach and Vomiting
Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach before an exam?
Have you ever felt gut-wrenching fear before getting into your car?
Have you ever felt like throwing up before giving a public speech?
If you have, then you know what it’s like to feel nauseous when you’re under stress.
Believe it or not, we all do.
So much so that we have developed a language to express nausea caused by anxiety: “butterflies in your stomach,” “gut-wrenching fear,” “nauseating fear,” etc.
Whatever we decide to call it, anxiety nausea just feels terrible.
It messes with your performance and it makes you literally sick.
It’s hard to describe that whirling sensation in your stomach that slowly but steadily drains your strength, makes your skin cold and dims your vision.
The hardest part is that the trigger of anxious nausea varies by person.
For some people, it’s public speaking gigs. Whenever they have to stand on a stage in front of a bunch of people and give a presentation or a speech, their bowel kicks into overdrive and ruins their focus.
For others, it’s walking over to a member of the opposite sex and starting a conversation. They suddenly feel that they would sooner walk over a sea of burning embers than to embarrass themselves in front of a member of the opposite sex.
The funny thing is, sometimes you don’t even have to do anything; it’s enough if you just think about a fearful situation or a stressful future event and your stomach will lurch and do all kinds of violent gymnastics.
It's interesting that how though anxiety can cause nausea to the point where you feel like you’re about to throw up, you rarely do.
When anxiety upsets your stomach, you feel sick all the time but strangely enough, you rarely throw up. You feel hot and dizzy and your mouth feels strangely dry but it usually stops there.
And if the urge to vomit wasn't bad enough, nauseating fear can also set your bowel into motion. Yep, anxiety nausea can make you have diarrhea, too.
And frantically try to remember where the nearest public restroom is while you’re dry heaving and hoping against hope that you make it to a toilet is an embarrassing and humiliating experience.
Stressful Situations That Can Make You Nauseous
So what kind of stressful situations can make you nauseous with anxiety?
Well, it depends. It all comes down to what kind of situations stress you out, personally.
For some people, it’s summer camps. For others, it’s making a phone call.
I’ve met people whose nausea was triggered by eating foods of a certain texture. For example, tasting sticky, thick or dry foods would make them feel sick.
For me personally, it’s always been exams. As I was standing outside the classroom, skimming over my notes in a final desperate attempt to memorize them, I would get very nervous to the point of severe nausea.
It really sucked because it meant that I had to concentrate not only on remembering the material but also on ignoring all the wild sensations in my stomach… and making sure that the fact that I was about to vomit didn’t show on my face.
In fact, the biggest challenge wasn’t really trying to get to the bathroom or suppressing the urge to throw up. It was pretending that everything was alright. That I wasn’t feeling sick, that I wasn’t about to vomit all over the floor... and that I wasn’t in that state because of a public exam.
There’s so much embarrassment and shame associated with anxiety induced nausea, it can really drag your self-esteem down.
So How Can Anxiety Make You Nauseous?
Understanding is the first step to acceptance. And only with acceptance can there be recovery. - J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
So to understand anxiety induced nausea, you have to understand anxiety first.
And anxiety is, for the most part a dragged out stress response of your body.
The stress response is also called the "fight or flight response" and as the name implies, it’s perfectly natural and it’s dead useful. It has helped human beings survive and prosper on this planet for millions of years.
What it does is, it makes sure that when you’re in mortal danger, your body gains a superhuman strength and reflexes in order to survive.
Well, this is just an overview of what really happens but the point is that when you’re under stress, your body releases a bunch of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol to make you fight better and run better.
To improve your fighting ability, those chemicals redirect blood flow from several of your organs to your muscles and your brain - the two parts of your body that you need most when in danger.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you’re a gazelle grazing on the vast plains of the Savannah in Africa and all of a sudden a lion has just pounced at you and ripped your stomach open. Frightened to death, you’re trying to flee for your life while dragging your innards in the dust.
So what adrenaline does is; first it numbs your pain. That’s great because it allows you to not be so preoccupied with the fact that you have an open wound on your stomach.
Then it redirects the blood flow inside your body. Parts of your body that you don’t need when you’re trying to run away from a lion are shut down. That means that your immune system, your reproductive system and your digestive system don’t receive as much blood as usual.
Other parts of your body that can help you survive the lion attack such as your leg muscles, your brain and your senses receive a lot more blood then usual to help you get out of there alive.
And as cruel as it may sound, it makes perfect sense. Because after 3 minutes of fleeing from the mountain lion, the chase is either over with or you’re over with. If you survive, you’ll have plenty of time to digest food, recover, heal and have sex with other gazelles later.
On the other hand, if you don’t survive, then the fact that your reproductive system, your immune system and your digestive system didn’t receive enough blood won’t really matter, right?
So fast forward to this modern age that we live in and you can the same thing happening in your body when you’re stressed out of your mind sitting in the exam hall frantically skimming your notes.
You’re scared of a negative outcome and for all the brain knows you’re under threat. It will try to help you out by releasing some of the chemicals that can give you superhuman strength and lighting fast reflexes – but all that boost comes at a price.
And that price is paid by parts of your body, such as your digestive system, that don’t receive the blood flow they need for the duration of the stress response.
And that’s fine for a 3 minutes encounter with a lion. But in our day-to-day modern life, our stressful situations tend to last more than that.
Oftentimes it’s not 3 minutes but 3 hours that we’re stressed out of our minds.
And that’s a little too long for our digestive system to handle.
Anxious Nausea and the Brain-Gut Connection
Have you ever heard the phrase that “your gut is your second brain?”
According to John Hopkins Medicine, our gut is filled to the brim with nerve cells that communicate with the brain all the time. It’s like a super-busy highway of information that connects our thinking brain with the gut – i.e. our “second brain”.
And weird things can happen when the gut and the brain are connected like that.
Like when you look at your desk and you realize that there’s a huge stack of bills you need to pay… and you feel that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.
Your stomach knows.
Oftentimes it knows before you do.
So our gastrointestinal system knows a lot more than what it lets on. It’s very attuned to our emotions and it’s super-sensitive to what’s going on around you.
And it’s got a huge pipeline of communications with the brain to boot.
So what does that all mean?
Well, when the gut complains you're forced to listen and listen well...
Well, let’s quickly review what you just learned:
- A strong stress response can decrease the blood flow to your digestive organs making you nauseous.
- As a result, all the nerve cells in your gut are going to rise in rebellion and bombard your brain with unpleasant sensations.
- And finally, emetophobia develops…
Emetophobia: The Fear of Sickness
So first of all, what is emetophobia?
Emetophobia literally means fear of vomiting. It’s a phobia that has to do with that unpleasant feeling when “food” – or what’s left of it – travels from your stomach through your mouth and into the world.
Now let’s get one thing clear before we move on. Vomiting is not a pleasant experience. Nobody likes to hold their breath while the content of their belly comes gushing out of their mouth uncontrollably.
To that extent, emetophobia is a perfectly natural reaction to an unpleasant experience.
On the other hand though, when the fear of vomiting gets to a point where you consciously avoid public places in order to avoid throwing up in front of people… or when you start stressing out over throwing throw up, it becomes unhealthy.
So as soon as emetophobia interferes with your daily life, making you avoid places and escape certain stressful situations, it should raise a red flag immediately.
Because you don’t want to live your life in constant fear of feeling sick. You don’t want to have to deal with the panic of throwing up in front of people.
Not only because emetophobia will literally dictate how you live your life but because at the end of the day, it’s going to perpetuate the anxiety spiral.
The Anxiety Spiral – The Vicious Cycle of Stress
The Anxiety Spiral is the essence of anxiety. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds itself on stress and fear.
The formula of the Anxiety Spiral goes like this:
Your personal trigger -> nauseating fear of trigger -> fear of nauseating fear.
So to give you an example, let’s say exams make you sick with nervousness. Public exams makes you anxious. You feel nauseous sitting there, being scrutinized by a bunch of extremely smart people. So exams are your personal anxiety nausea trigger.
In the next step, you develop a fear of exams because they make you nauseous. Now you don’t have to actually sit in the exam hall for you to feel sick, it’s enough if you just think of an exam to feel nauseous. By vividly remembering past exam experiences you can work yourself into a nauseous overdrive.
Can you follow?
And the final step adds a whole new layer of fear to the situation. Now you’re no longer nervous about the exam itself; you’re actually nervous about the nervousness that it creates.
You’re nervous that you’re going to get nervous and end up vomiting in front of people.
So to sum it up, stress can make nauseous, and nausea can stress you out tremendously.
This creates a vicious cycle where nausea and anxiety feed each other and keep you trapped in a downward spiral of stress.
8 Ways to Stop Anxiety Induced Nausea
In this section I’m going to share with you some of my best techniques about how to stop feeling nauseous in a stressful situation.
#1 Munch on ginger
Ginger has antiemetic properties so it can revert that sickening feeling that can make you vomit.
Ginger has been used by ancient Chinese and Indian medics since ancient times to treat nausea and diseases of the digestive tract.
It’s also pretty easy to come by and you can buy it very cheap. Crystallized ginger, ginger candy and ginger ale all work wonders when you’re feeling sick with nervousness.
#2 Drink More Water
According to WebMD, drinking water can help alleviate the feeling of nausea.
Make sure you don’t drink juices or soft drinks though. You want to stick to clean water, sports drinks and broths.
According to recent studies, peppermint is also a great natural antiemetic.
Peppermint is kind of the go-to falvor when it comes to nausea. It has a really refreshing taste that can take that weird vomit-inducing taste out of your mouth that you feel before throwing up. It also has a strong aromatic smell that feels cooling and cleansing at the same time.
Also, it kind of reminds me of toothpaste which might be one of the reasons it works so well.
I personally use peppermint gum whenever I feel nervous but I’ve heard great things about peppermint tums and peppermint oil, too.
#4 Brush Your Teeth
This one is my personal favorite. I love brushing my teeth and it helps eliminate any lingering feeling of nausea.
Obviously, it is not always an option but when it is, you should give it a try.
I’m not sure about why it works though. I’m guessing it does because it removes that weird pre-vomit taste from your mouth and replaces it with a refreshing clean taste. It also distracts your attention from the nausea by engaging you in the familiar routine of brushing your teeth.
And since you probably brush your teeth every day before going to sleep, your brain has been trained to associate teeth brushing with the ultimate relaxation experience of the day: sleeping.
#5 Cold Water
Taking a cold shower, running cold water over your wrists or immersing your face in cold water can all help with vomiting.
How? It’s got a lot to do with the mammalian diving reflex. It turns out that mammals, including humans respond to cold water in a very interesting way.
It turns out that at one stage of our evolution, we spent a lot of our time in water. And whenever we submerged are faces in water – meaning that we were no longer able to breathe air – our body would immediately fire the diving reflex.
What the diving reflex does is it basically calms you down. It reduces your heart rate and slows down your breathing to conserve oxygen while you’re under water.
The amazing thing is that you can fire the mammalian diving reflex by submerging the area just below your eyes in icy cold water for a few seconds. And since it calms you down, it will also reduce feelings of nausea. How convenient!
#6 Gentle Abdominal Massage
As you already know, anxiety decreased blood flow to your digestive organs.
So a good idea to restore blood flow to your stomach and intestines would be to gently massage the stomach area for a few minutes.
Make sure you’re slow and gentle though – you don’t want to upset your stomach even more!
#7 Slow, Controlled Breathing Exercise
Anxiety – which is basically a drawn out stress response – makes you breathe faster. Remember the fight or flight situation that we talked about earlier? When you’re getting ready to fight or flee for your life, breathing faster helps supply your muscles with more oxygen.
One way of short-circuiting that stress response is by consciously slowing down your breathing. If your brain sees that you’re not breathing rapidly anymore, it will automatically assume that the fight is over, danger has passed, you can now relax.
And as soon as that happens, all anxiety symptoms will slowly disappear one by one, including nausea.
What I like to do while slowing down my breathing is I put my right hand on my chest and my left hand on my stomach. When I inhale, I make sure that it’s my stomach that inflates; my chest doesn’t move at all. When I exhale, I make sure that once again my chest doesn’t budge, it’s only my stomach that moves.
I find that it helps to gently stroke my stomach area while I’m doing this.
#8 Talk About It
I believe it is very important to talk to people about your triggers, your feelings and your experiences.
Many people with anxiety try to pretend that they're feeling perfectly fine only to blend in with others. And I can certainly understand that feeling but never keep your feelings of nervousness and stress hidden away inside of you.
You might think that you’re the only one you know who has anxiety nausea problems but if you told some of your friends or family about it, I’m sure you’d be surprised how many people can relate and share similar stories of their own.
Anxiety induced nausea is a very common symptom of anxiety. Stress has the power to upset your stomach to the point that you feel you’re about to vomit.
It’s a terrible feeling and it’s hard to live life always in fear of a nauseous episode.
One thing I’ve learned over the years however, is that we’re not alone. There are plenty of people out there who are struggling with the same anxiety nausea that we do.
Sure enough, just like you and me, they might be hiding it. They might be pretending that everything is fine. But if you poke around a little bit, you’ll find that more often than not, people have similar experiences to yours and they can’t wait to talk to somebody about it that can relate to their situation.