Upset stomach, headache and heart palpitations are all physiological responses experienced whenever a person becomes nervous. An individual might experience one or more of these symptoms when nervous based upon the individual's own psychological and emotional makeup. An upset stomach during times of stress is a survival reaction. Perceived threats are experienced physiologically as a part of the fight or flight response when physical or emotional danger appears imminent.
Fight or Flight
An individual who experiences stress in the stomach, a part of the gastrointestinal tract, has a strong fight or flight reaction to good or bad stress. A nervous stomach reaction can range from what is commonly referred to as "butterflies in the stomach" to vomiting or severe pain. The rumbling sound that often accompanies an upset stomach is due to the slowing or cessation of digestion that accompanies stress.
Within the human body are many different systems working together. Some of the systems are critical for survival of the body, so they are called vital organs. Other systems are necessary, but can be temporarily suspended when the body's resources are needed elsewhere. The stomach, as part of the gastrointestinal or GI tract, is one of these suspendable systems. In times of danger, resources are directed away from the digestive system and rerouted to the vital organs and muscles needed for fight or flight, resulting in an upset stomach.
Call On Reserves
Two operating systems work in tandem within the body. The central nervous system, or CNS, is the main headquarters, consisting of the brain, spinal cord and nerves. The CNS is responsible for the operation of vital organs. However, the CNS does not directly operate the digestive system, a nonvital organ. Instead, the CNS sends signals to the body's other operating system, the enteric nervous system, or ENS, which is located within the GI tract and controls digestion. When the CNS sends signals to the ENS due to stress, the ENS can trigger reserves used in the immune response, releasing histamines and hormones that lead to queasy and uncomfortable feelings in the stomach.
Calm the Stress
When stress makes you nervous, takes away your appetite and makes you feel sick, take control and ease the discomfort. While acute stress reactions resolve relatively quickly, chronic stress must be managed to alleviate symptoms such as an upset stomach. Take care of the basics: exercise in moderation, eat several small meals or snacks a day, and get adequate rest. Engage in activities that take your mind off of your problems. Refrain from abuse of alcohol or other drugs, which will lead to an increase in symptoms over time.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: Common Reactions After Trauma
- American Psychological Association: Stress: The Different Kinds of Stress
- CIS Information Sheets; International Critical Incident Stress Foundation
- Harvard Health Publications: Why Stress May Cause Abdominal Pain
- Serendip: The Brain in Your Gut
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: National Digestive Diseases Clearinghouse