Your question: Why do I feel butterflies in my stomach when I have anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Anxiety is a universal phenomenon, therefore, it manifests itself in different ways for each person. To a certain extent, anxiety is necessary, because it is our brain’s warning signal to detect potential dangers and act accordingly, thus avoiding damage to our integrity.

However, when anxiety gets out of control, becoming more intense and recurrent, it creates a problem in people’s daily lives. In particular, the physical symptoms of anxiety are quite annoying, and can interrupt daily functions such as work and studies.

Research has shown that gastrointestinal disorders have a close relationship with anxiety and depression problems. This involves everything from simple abdominal pain to more specific sensations; in your case, the feeling of having “butterflies in your stomach” during anxiety (1).

This sensation can range from tingling to tightness in the abdominal area, and is commonly associated with stressful, anxiety-generating situations. It is a normal symptom of anxiety, so you are not alone and it should not pose a more serious problem.

However, I understand that it can be quite an annoying feeling that you want to learn to control. To do this, you need to know the source of this feeling and eventually, apply coping strategies that will help you decrease the feeling of anxiety in general. You have the ability to cope with this problem, and with professional help, you can gradually improve your quality of life.

What does it feel like to have anxiety?

In addition to the feeling of having butterflies in the stomach, anxiety causes other physical and emotional symptoms that can be just as, if not more, bothersome. Among these are:

  • Tachycardia and sweating.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Difficulty breathing or agitated breathing.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Stomach ache and/or headache.
  • Dizziness, tiredness or fatigue.
  • Fear or intense sadness.

Why do you feel butterflies in your stomach when you are anxious?

The feeling of butterflies in the stomach during anxiety is explained by the relationship that exists between your mind and the digestive system. The brain and the stomach are constantly connecting and communicating through the production of hormones and neurotransmitters related to the regulation of our emotions.

Therefore, emotional discomfort can generate an affectation in the digestive system, and a stomach problem can affect your emotional state. The feeling of butterflies in the stomach, whether it is a tingling or a stabbing pain, occurs because during the episode of anxiety, your body enters a state of physical dysregulation that triggers reactions throughout your body that can feel uncomfortable and visceral.

What can you do?

To deal with the feeling of butterflies in the stomach and anxiety in general, it is necessary to apply some strategies to your lifestyle. However, it is also important to see a health professional. A psychologist or therapist will be able to help you develop specific coping techniques for your anxiety problem and a doctor will be able to rule out that a more serious gastrointestinal problem is causing this uncomfortable feeling.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing can be applied lying down or sitting up. Close your eyes and breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose for 5 seconds, hold your breath for 2 seconds and exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds. Rest your hand on your abdomen and feel how the air enters and leaves your body slowly, decreasing the tension and discomfort associated with anxiety in the process. You can apply this technique for 5 to 20 minutes a day, whenever you feel that the feeling of anxiety is overloading you.

Get out of your routine

Too often we don’t realize the impact that routine can have on our lives. Going from home to work, from work to shopping and then back to home can be exhausting to your physical and mental health. Therefore, taking the time to get outdoors, whether it’s to the mountains, the beach or any landscape of your choice, will allow you to clear your mind and alleviate your anxious symptoms.

Physical exercise

Physical activity is necessary because it allows you to train both your body and your mind. Whether in a gym, playing a sport or from the comfort of your home, physical exercise helps you release hormones and neurotransmitters related to happiness, allows you to feel more focused and helps you drain negative emotions.

In my experience…

The feeling of butterflies in your stomach during anxiety is quite common, and although it may feel frightening, it is part of the process your body goes through to get back to normal after the anxious episode. Although it can be difficult, coping with anxiety is possible. You have the ability to cope with the problems in your life and with enough determination and psychological help.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this medium proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health.

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