“Mommy, I have a tummy ache.”
Where would childhood be without this vague refrain? As adults we may not use the same woebegone words, but who hasn’t had a nervous stomach, a butterfly belly, or a case of anxiety that sent us to the bathroom, nauseous, sweating, and near to vomiting?
Lots of things can leave us queasy or give us a stomachache. Viruses and bacteria are major physical causes of nausea and vomiting. But so are our emotions, especially anxiety, stress, and excitement. Consider:
- Social anxiety. We’ve all had this in certain situations. Maybe it’s attending a fancy party where we don’t know anyone, or heading out for the first day of school or a new job.
- Performance anxiety. It could be giving an important talk at a meeting, or preparing for the biggest game of the season.
- Stress or fear. Maybe it’s mortgage payment worries, a child moving across country to attend college, or a bully at school.
- Over-excitement. Here’s a “good” reason for tummy upsets. Think a great big wedding, maybe graduation day, or a much-anticipated vacation.
How Emotions Affect Our Body
Why do our feelings sometimes make us sick?
“Our lives are filled with emotions, from anger to shame, fear to delight,” says Tracy A. Dennis, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychology at Hunter College, the City University of New York.
Each of these emotions causes complex physical responses. When we’re angry, for example, our heart rate increases, adrenaline flows, blood pressure spikes, and we “see red,” Dennis says.
“These physiological and neuroendocrine changes associated with emotion influence all aspects of our body, including the digestive system,” Dennis tells WebMD. “These physical responses can start and stop quite suddenly and be very intense.”
Dennis says it’s the intensity of emotions that can send our body into overdrive, producing immediate gastrointestinal distress -- stomachaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. (Over the long-run, these same neuroendocrine responses can raise our risks of high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.)
Stress, Anxiety, Vomiting, and Stomachache: What You Can Do
If you or your child suffers frequent stomachaches or nausea, first see a doctor to rule out any physical cause. Physical causes -- bacteria, a virus, acid reflux, lactose intolerance, constipation -- are usually behind the stomachaches and vomiting of younger children.
“It’s beyond toddlerhood when you tend to get into the stress-triggered abdominal complaints,” says Chris Tolcher, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.
Once you’ve ruled out physical causes, take a close look at how you or your child react to stressful situations.
“We all know that our mind influences our body, and vice versa. The science of emotion and stress is starting to catch up with our intuitive understanding of this,” Dennis says.