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The gut feelings that can cause sickness

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

A tummy ache is a common complaint especially for children. It can be caused by a virus or a bacteria but it may also be the result of our emotions.

Scientists call the link between our thoughts and stomach the 'brain-gut axis'.

Stress, anxiety or even excitement can cause physical symptoms in all manner of situations:

  • The feeling of butterflies in your tummy before a first date
  • Having to use the toilet just before the stress of an exam
  • Waves of sickness before a job interview
  • Feeling socially anxious and sweaty if you don’t know anyone at a party
  • The stress of debt problems resulting in physical headaches
  • Worries about your child being bullied leading to an ache in the pit of your stomach

Why do our feelings sometimes make us feel sick?

Clinical psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin says it’s a classic response.

"When we think anxious thoughts (which are usually related to a threat) the brain sends adrenaline into the body. This is the ancient fight/flight response we still have inside of us.

"Adrenaline has a number of effects other than giving us the strength to fight or run away, some of which are butterfly tummy, nausea, shakes, sweating and your heart beating faster."

These emotions, which cause complex physical responses, can affect the digestive system. Anxiety and worry can upset the balance of digestion and worsen conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

"Some children find it difficult to articulate their worries, stresses or anxieties and can hold their emotions inside, which results in a sore stomach," according to Siobhan Freegard from the parenting website Netmums.

"Others cannot pinpoint exactly what the issue is, so this churning emotion can also bring on tummy ache. So, even when the cause is emotional, the tummy ache is real and manifests itself as a physical pain."

Check out a physical cause

Obviously if your stomach pain is sudden and very severe get medical attention straight away.

If you or your child often suffers from bouts of sickness or nausea, the first stop is your GP to see if there’s a physical cause.

Bacteria, virus, acid reflux and constipation may be behind the tummy aches and sickness of younger children.

It may even be an intolerance to a foodstuff like lactose.

As children get older, how they feel emotionally may have a greater impact on how they feel physically.

Once you’ve ruled out physical causes, take a close look at how you or your child reacts to stressful situations. You may be able to make a connection between a feeling of anxiety in a particular area of life and sickness symptoms.

Tips to manage stress, anxiety and excitement

  • Relaxed deep breathing.
  • Light exercise. Walking and stretching can soothe a stressed-out body or an over-excited mind.
  • Distraction. Watch TV, play with pets, do some gardening.
  • Imagine and visualise. Siobhan says: "I know of some families who talk about the tummy ache and draw or describe it, then try to identify what it is called - so perhaps the geography test, or the argument with a friend, or the sleepover. By morning the child has usually overcome their fears."
  • Plan it out. Thinking about how to handle a situation can make you feel more in control.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Recharging your batteries and switching off can help with anxiety.
  • Avoid too much alcohol. It’s a short-term fix that can make anxiety worse.
  • Don’t comfort eat. It may make your sickness worse or make you feel bad for overindulging.
  • If anxiety and stress is severe seek medical advice. Your GP may be able to suggest a counsellor or therapist to help you or your child.

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