We have all felt that nervous flutter in our belly from time to time, usually just before an important meeting, or even upon sending a simple text to a new crush. We call this sensation “butterflies,” but what is the science behind that fluttery feeling?
Butterflies or Fight-or-Flight?
Having butterflies in the stomach is actually just a nice way of saying, “I’m nervous!” That anxious, fluttery feeling is actually very closely associated with the body’s natural fight-or-flight response, also known as the “acute stress response” that all animals, including human beings, have relied upon as a survival technique since the dawn of time. This response signals the body to raise alertness levels by increasing both the heart and breathing rate, as well as raising a person’s blood pressure, and it does not stop there. The nervous system chimes in with a two-part reaction, kicking adrenaline into high gear, causing the body to tense up and increase cortisol production, which cools the body with perspiration.
This function has been allowing animals to perceive and respond to physical and environmental threats for years. While humans today are not exactly faced with escaping the deadly grip of a hungry lion, our bodies still become flooded with hormones that become triggered by stress. This is why nervousness is often characterized by someone stammering over their own words with a visibly sweaty forehead and palms. It is the nervous system at work protecting us from the threats of our surroundings, even if today’s threats appear as a potential new boss or an attractive date.
But Why Do I Feel It in My Belly?
When we find ourselves in such a response state, that tensing of the body caused by adrenaline leads to especially constricted stomach muscles, an evolutionary tactic designed to allow us to spring into action should we need to literally fight for our lives. Scientists have long-studied the link between the brain and the digestive system, and with 100 million neurons linking the two, there is more than enough opportunity for the stressful situations recognized by the brain to make its way into the digestive system, hence the butterflies feeling. That same adrenaline spike is also believed to stop digestion on a temporary basis, as blood in the stomach used to digest foods leaves to reach other parts of the body that may be more in need of extra support should you assume the “flight” tactic, such as the leg muscles.
What Can I Do to Deal With the Feeling?
Since the fluttery feeling actually comes down to a case of nerves, you can be rest assured that the anxious and uncomfortable feeling in your belly will eventually flap its wings right on out of your system. In the meantime, deep breathing and maintaining a positive attitude about the situation at hand can provide some relief while the brain and body are in overdrive mode. If you know you are about to walk into a particularly nerve-wracking situation, you might try eating a lighter meal beforehand, avoid stimulants like coffee or caffeinated sodas, and naturally calm the body with some very light and meditative exercises, like a leisurely stroll around the block. Find what works best for you and your body in that moment, and just remember to breathe.
If you experience chronic anxiety or emotional distress, however, consider working with your doctor to find a solution that is right for you. The constant effects of adrenaline can take a toll on the digestive system, either by directly affecting the cells of the stomach, making them sensitive to pain, or by disrupting the motion of the intestines, which can lead to frequent constipation or diarrhea. There are vast resources out there to help you if you need it, so do not suffer in silence. Make your health a priority.