We’ve all been there. It’s finals week and you’re short on sleep, or you have a deadline at work and can’t remember the last meal you cooked at home. The kids are sick and you’ve been up all night, or your personal life is crumbling at your feet. We all know that stress takes a toll on the body, but the connection between that stress and our gut health is a less common topic.

Why your tummy hurts when sh*t gets real

Turns out, the brain and the gastrointestinal system are tight. They’re BFFs. Ever get the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in your stomach before a big presentation or performance? The anxiety you’re feeling sends signals to the gut, causing movement or contractions in the GI tract.

Stressful situations can also send us into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Our body responds by cutting off blood flow to the gut and reserving it for more important things, like running or kicking someone’s ass.  That doesn’t leave a lot of room for proper digestion. When this happens consistently, it can reduce the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut and lead to more chronic digestive issues. Yuck.

What you can do about it

Label the feelings. Don’t try to talk yourself out of feelings of anxiety or stress. Instead, notice them and label them. For example, you might feel your stomach tense on the day of a big presentation as you’re walking into work. Label it by saying ‘My stomach is tensing right now.’ Sometimes, the simple act of pausing, identifying what’s happening, and labeling it can reduce stress levels.

Look for patterns. Do these feelings occur at a particular time or in a specific place? How does your body feel when this happens? If you notice a trend, there are many other on-the-spot strategies you can try to bring your stress down a notch the next time you’re in the same situation. Here are a few of my faves:

  • Pause for some 4-8 breathing; breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 8.
  • Look around at your environment and identify a few shapes and a few colors that you see.
  • Give yourself an affirmation, like ‘The way I feel right now is temporary and I’m moving through it.’

What’s next?

While stress management strategies can be game changers, it’s not always the whole story. There are many indirect ways to both reduce and manage stress by making simple changes to your diet or lifestyle. It might seem counterintuitive, but climbing into bed when you still have things on your to-do list at 11pm can actually help you be more efficient in the long term. 

Easier said than done though, right? It can seem overwhelming to make those sorts of changes, and sometimes it feels easier to just keep doing what you’re doing. I get it. If you’re looking for some individualized support to make the process simpler, consider working with a health coach or functional medicine practitioner for actionable steps you can take to get back on track.