If you’ve ever experienced a stomach ache before a big presentation, or suddenly felt nauseous when hitting send on a high-stakes email to your boss, you’re already pretty familiar with the relationship between stress and the stomach. “The brain and digestive system are closely interconnected,” Emeran Mayer, MD, Ph.D., the director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience and author of The Mind-Gut Connection, tells Thrive.
In fact, the brain and digestive system are so intertwined that some scientists call the stomach the “second brain.” “The term second brain is used to refer to the 50 to 100 million nerve cells that are sandwiched in between the gut layers,” Mayer explains. “From an evolutionary standpoint, this gut-based nervous system is really our first brain, as it existed millions of years before primitive animals developed brains in their heads.”
This “additional nervous system,” as Mayers puts it, in the stomach helps explain why some of us are prone to tummy troubles during stressful situations. When the brain’s stress system sends signals to the millions of nerve cells in our guts, we may experience everything from indigestion to nausea or even vomiting. “Stress can also directly influence the microbes living in our gut,” he says, with chronic stress putting us at risk of developing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
While there’s no doubt that stress can take a physical toll on your digestive system, the right stress management techniques can help soothe an upset stomach or even help you avoid the pain in the first place. Here, a few tips to try:
Try diaphragmatic breathing
This is one of the simplest but most effective strategies for keeping stress — and the accompanying tummy troubles — in check, says Mayer. In moments when you feel anxious and tightness, you can practice this breathing method: As the Cleveland Clinic notes, start by lying on your back on a flat surface and bending your knees, with your feet on the floor (make sure your head is supported, too). Then, place one hand on the upper part of your chest and the other below your ribcage. Breathe in slowly through your nose and feel your stomach press up against your hand. Lastly, the Cleveland Clinic recommends tightening your stomach muscles and then letting them relax while exhaling through pursed lips.
You might not find it surprising that one of meditation’s many benefits has to do with your stomach. “Meditation has been demonstrated to be helpful in regulating stress, reducing chronic inflammation, and maintaining a healthy gut-barrier function — one that aims to filter in beneficial nutrients and prevent the entrance of harmful toxins,” Jacqueline Sperling, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School, tells Thrive. One simple way to practice mindfulness meditation if you’re not in the habit already? Start with just 60 seconds where you sit quietly and try to focus on your breathing.
Get up and move
Sometimes, when we’re stressed, all we want to do is veg out or crawl in bed. But here’s motivation to take a contrary action: According to Harvard Health Publishing, aerobic exercise can help reduce stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, and boost endorphins, the body’s “natural painkillers.” Starting the day with a brisk walk — just enough to get your heart rate up — may help set you up to better cope with a stressful day.
Consult a doctor
When other coping mechanisms don’t have much of an impact on your stomach’s stress response, it might be time to consult a physician. “Due to the connected nature between the mind and the gut, nutrition can play an impactful role on one’s mood,” Sperling says — and a professional can help you determine which foods to include in your diet, and which to leave out. What’s more, Sperling recommends cognitive behavioral therapy as an evidence-based treatment to help manage anxiety, depression, and stress, which in turn, can help alleviate the physiological symptoms of distress, especially those you may feel in the stomach.