According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the expression “I have a knot in my stomach” is “used to say that a person has an unpleasant and tight feeling in the stomach, usually from nervousness.” The expression has been around for a long time and saying it elicits knowing glances because everyone has had the feeling at one time or another. But only recently has the connection between feeling nervous or anxious and experiencing symptoms in your gut become clear. And psychologists are beginning to take note.
The Second Brain?
You are familiar with the body’s central nervous system made up of the brain and the spinal cord and how nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters extend from the brain to all the major organs of the body. Well, it seems a lesser known part of your nervous system is located in your gut. Called the enteric nervous system or “second brain” by medical experts, this system extends the entire length of your digestive tract and has nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters just like your central nervous system, allowing the enteric nervous system and the central nervous system to communicate. Assisting in this communication are hormones and the immune system.
The enteric system sends messages to the brain about the status of your gut. At the same time, the brain can directly impact the gut. Let’s look at some examples of the connection between your brain and your gut. When you are in sudden danger, the “fight or flight” response kicks in and stress levels rise. Digestion slows down or stops so that more energy can be diverted to the danger you are facing. Chronic stress can cause headaches, high blood pressure, and major problems in the gut, including abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation. On the other hand, gastrointestinal issues transmitted to the brain can cause mood changes as well as stress, anxiety, and depression.
Recently, medical experts have discovered one way to help calm your nerves in your stomach is through medication designed to treat depression. But medications come with a wide variety of side effects, so some people are hesitant to take them. By identifying why you’re stressed, you can learn to lower stress levels and prevent issues with your gut. So if your stomach has been bothering you lately and you can’t figure out why, check with your doctor and consider trying some stress-reduction techniques.
Counseling can also help you determine why you are stressed and examine ways you can lower your stress. Learning relaxation techniques, such as meditation, can help calm your nerves. If you’re experiencing issues such as heartburn, abdominal cramps, or loose stools and you don’t have any obvious health conditions, try to figure out the cause of your stress and eliminate it. This is easier said than done because often everyday life, work, kids, and schedules can be very stressful.
Talk about your symptoms with a doctor to determine whether or not your symptoms are from stress or something else. Take some time for self-care and to eat well and you may find that you start getting fewer knots in your stomach.