I have a little something I’d like to share with you, a secret of mine. Can anxiety cause nausea, I hear you ask? Yes it bloody well can.
Understanding your anxiety can feel pretty hard when the symptoms you experience appear seemingly unrelated. But once you become aware of all the various ways anxiety can affect you, things suddenly slot into place.
Anxiety first struck when I was 16 years old and preparing to sit my exams at school. I was a pretty bright (ish) student, a sort of low level A-grader. The type that always did well but the teachers always believed I probably should have been able to do just that little bit better.
I remember being asked to join ‘The Hot Chocolate’ Club. Sounds pretty great, right? Yeah, it wasn’t that fun. It was extra time dedicated to those students who were on the cusp of having really great grades but not quite ‘reaching their potential’.
Predicated A graders who they’d prefer to get A*’s you know, so the school’s stats look super sexy and what not.
This dedicated extra time was taken out of a lunch break once a week so of course they had to bribe us with hot chocolate and biscuits. I can’t believe I fell for that.
Regardless, I was fairly intelligent and didn’t overly struggle in school. So I believed that the exams would be a breeze and I had very little to worry about. But I was obviously hiding a little something from myself.
I had a fear of failure that I didn’t even know I had.
This is when my anxiety first landed on the scene.
To begin with I didn’t know a lot about anxiety and I didn’t know if anxiety could cause nausea.
I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what I was dealing with and I didn’t know where it came from. But, from out of the blue, I was horrendously nauseous.
I couldn’t leave the house without my mouth filling up with saliva. By the time I left home in the morning and entered the school gates (which, by the way, are literally at the end of my road) I was drenched in sweat and sprinting to the school toilets.
I was never actually sick. For 2 years the extreme nausea accompanied me wherever I went and yet I never, not once, actually threw up.
MY NAUSEA MADE ME KEEP THIS LITTLE ANXIETY SECRET
Anxiety can cause a lot of things – physical symptoms and emotional instability. And with my anxiety, I experienced a deep feeling of shame surrounding it. And embarrassment, to be completely honest.
At first I thought I was just physically ill. I did not have a name for what was happening in my body (or mind as I later discovered). And I felt really pathetic. I felt weak.
So as time went on and things developed I found myself behaving in ways that made me feel selfish. And I found myself keeping secrets because I was too embarrassed to admit what I was doing.
I’m going to share this little secret with you and unfortunately, it’s nothing overly juicy or exciting.
I’m not about to sit here and tell you that my anxiety caused me to melt down bags of Haribo and remould them into the shape of my year 8 music teacher or something.
But I think it’s important to share because it explains very clearly that yes, anxiety can cause nausea. Really badly. But also, the shame that anxiety can bring would have us withhold information like this from our loved ones which could actually help them in supporting us if they only knew.
NAUSEA WAS THE WORST SYMPTOM OF MY ANXIETY
The nausea that can be caused by anxiety is very real.
It was so real for me that I danced with periods of agoraphobia as I feared that I would throw up all over myself in public. Claustrophobia crept in (still an issue today) and public transport became more testing as I worried that I couldn’t escape.
I couldn’t get somewhere out of site for when I was undoubtedly going to bring up my breakfast. Everyone would see. How humiliating.
Despite the fact that I wasn’t sick once, it felt so real that the evidence showing me that it was unlikely to ever happen was irrelevant.
You know the feeling, right?
Imagine a time where you had food poisoning or a stomach bug or, possibly more relatable to more people, you’re super hungover. And in those few moments before you fill the toilet bowl your mouth fills up with water, your body over heats, your eyes begin to water and you can feel a little tug on your gag reflex.
That feeling, right there, was the exact feeling of nausea I experienced with my anxiety.
So imagine that feeling, constantly, but without actually following through. It’s pretty hard to convince yourself that it’s all in your head when it’s quite literally all in your body.
THE SAFETY BLANKET THAT NO-ONE KNEW ABOUT
One day I had gone shopping into town with a friend and purchased absolutely nothing of value or use from a bits and bobs shop in the town centre. The shop assistant packed it up and handed it over to me.
My little purchase was given to me in a small A5 white plastic bag. And that was it.
I thought to myself, ‘This is fucking perfect’
This bag become my anxiety safety blanket against my nausea. I folded the bag up into a little square not too much bigger than a stamp and stuffed it into my jeans pocket.
At that time I didn’t know what I was dealing with.
I was recognising patterns as to when the nausea appeared like when I was having a difficult conversation with someone, when I thought I might upset someone, when I was on public transport, when I went into school for my exams, when I had to try anything new or speak to someone new.
I had these queues which triggered this intense feeling of sickness in my stomach but I still didn’t know it was a matter of the mind and not the body.
For 2 years I carried around this little bag in my pocket. I didn’t leave the house without it. I thought, if I can’t understand why I feel so sick then I can at least be prepared if things actually do get messy.
And it went a long way to relieving any stress I was feeling. But it was just that – a plastic safety blanket, a placebo.
When I FORGOT to take it with me my anxiety was much worse. I’d fixate on the fact that I didn’t have the bag there with me just in case I should need it. My nausea felt worse because I didn’t feel safe being out without it.
But to explain just how much of a psychological support this bag of mine was I’ll tell you now, I had this bag folded up in my back pocket even when it had A MASSIVE WHOLE IN IT.
I had carried it for 2 years. It travelled the world with me, this little bag. I took it to Florida, New York and Spain. Honestly, it had the best life a little plastic bag could hope for.
But over time the corners and edges where it had stayed folded for so long wore away and made a pretty hefty hole in the bottom right hand corner.
And do you know what I did? I folded back up and stuck it straight back in my pocket.
I didn’t get a new bag and I didn’t stop carrying a bag altogether. Likewise, I didn’t look for anti-nausea pills. I NEEDED this specific bag and it didn’t seem to matter to me that it wasn’t even fit for combat anymore. It was the only thing that gave me some relief.
MIND OVER MATTER EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK
This little secret of mine might seem like nothing to you but the physical symptoms of anxiety can be truly traumatic and they feel entirely real.
When we’re discussing whether anxiety can cause nausea or headaches or heartburn of chest pain the answer is a resounding YES.
And somehow people still can’t quite believe what mental illnesses such as this can make you feel or alter how you behave. This is the power of the mind everybody. If it’s a battle between your brain and your body, I’d place my bet on the squidgy sponge inside my head every time.
These physical symptoms of anxiety are real. Regardless of whether they are caused by your anxious mind or not, they are not false. The nausea that you might be dealing with is real it just might not be caused by the reason you believed it to be.
The effects of anxiety on the mind, body and soul can be truly unbelievable.
But the sooner we understand that our anxiety can indeed cause us to feel sick, tense, unwell, achy, tired and everything else then the sooner we will be able to manage it.
HOW DOES ANXIETY CAUSE NAUSEA?
When we get down to the nitty gritty of what nausea actually is, we’re really talking about fear. And a healthy amount of anxiety and fear is good for us, it’s actually essential.
It’s a very natural response when our fight or flight mode is triggered. We sense we are in danger and our bodies react in a way that prepares us to either stand our ground or flee.
It’s super handy when you’re hunting for wildlife or fending off predators. Not so handy when we’re worried about appearing ‘perfect’ in the eyes of our peers or wondering if we’re the woman our husbands want us to be or visa versa.
When we fear we are in danger a whole bunch things happen in our brain and body that prepare us for the threat. Our heart rate increases, our body temperature rises, our muscles tense and we get greater blood flow to the brain.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong but all of these things are very similar to the physical feelings of nausea.
Imagine you were a witness to something scary. Perhaps you’re reliving ‘An American Werewolf In London’ and suddenly a big hairy, four legged freak jumps out of the darkness and attacks a friend.
This might you feel sick to your stomach, right?
In a scientific nutshell from someone who is not a scientist – when our bodies go into fight or flight response mode we trigger the autonomic nervous system.
The reaction releases what we would call ‘adrenaline’ and other potential adrenal hormones which all have the ability to alter the stomach lining, alter food digestion and restrict blood flow to the digestive system.
Your stomach may also tense as a reaction to the threat you may be experiencing. Your gut is your ‘second brain’ so you must not underestimate its ability to drastically alter mood – your microbiome has a lot of control over how we feel.
So, if your brain has jumped into fight or flight mode and triggered all of these chemical responses which in turn alter your microbiome in your guts ‘second brain’ then you can expect some serious physical responses.
Although it matters WHAT has triggered your response, where this gut reaction occurs it really doesn’t.
We might know that irrational anxiety has caused this nausea but our bodies just sense threat and fear. It can’t distinguish between what is a real threat and one caused by anxiety. That’s the job of our logical brain.
Our logical brain when working at its best takes all of the feelings and emotions toward any given situation and filters it through our cognitive thinking. Rationalizing whether or response is valid or not.
People who suffer from anxiety are less able to override their emotional brain with their logical brain. And when the emotional brain runs the show it can lead to ongoing anxiety, much like I experienced.
COPING WITH ANXIETY INDUCED NAUSEA
So to begin with I’d like to suggest that you jump over to Anxiety Relief: The Ultimate Guide. Here I have compiled a list of 51 tools and techniques for quick and long term anxiety relief.
Understand that to truly tackle your anxiety you have invest in doing the hard, painful work. Addressing your negative thought patterns. Interrupting your emotional brain with your logical brain.
Acknowledging those parts of yourself that you’d prefer to ignore.
Sitting with yourself and learning to understand yourself better by raising self-awareness and improving your emotional intelligence is tough. The reason many of us need assistance with this is because it is painful.
But it will gain you worthwhile results. So, the guide above mostly has techniques to help you manage when you feel anxiety creeping in. It should not be substituted for doing the hard stuff.
Here is a list however that would specifically help with anxiety induced nausea:
Cool yourself down – Drink plenty of water and avoid hot drinks when you feel nauseas
Eat healthily – help your gut microbiome by eating plenty of anti-inflammatory foods to help mitigate feelings of nausea
Breathe – Calm yourself down by managing your breathing. Breathe deeply and slowly through your NOSE.
Do exercises that will release tension – I would suggest yoga or pilates to stretch out tense muscles.
A little added extra technique that always worked for me was gently tapping my collar bone. I never quite understood how that helped but it was something I began to do habitually when I started feeling anxious.
Apparently this is a form of therapy called EFT and it is truly very simple. You tap what is known in Chinese medicine as your meridian points on your body. These include your collar bone, eyebrow, top of the head, under your eye and your chin for example.
There is far more to this therapy than I can explain here and perhaps that is another article altogether.
Needless to say, I used to do this instinctively on my collar bone and it was a great way to calm my nerves and mitigate my nausea. So, why not give it a try?!
ANXIETY CAN CAUSE ALMOST ANY PHYSICAL RESPONSE
The year 2020 has been a rough one, don’t you think?
People have had to navigate relationship tension through this isolation period and we have had to find a way to build emotional resilience during an uncertain time. Jobs have been lost as have loved ones.
For the most part I have been able to re-frame how I view this time period so I can use it as an opportunity but it wasn’t like that at the beginning.
If anxiety can cause nausea then what else could it be the cause of? A lot. Do not underestimate this condition.
For the first time ever I experienced chest pains caused by my anxiety that made me feel as though I might die. And that is the reality of anxiety – if it is not managed and regulated it can cause a multitude of physical illnesses.
Remember, your mind rules all. Including your body.
You can feel as though you might die. This is how real these physical responses can be. When you experience nausea, you are actually experiencing nausea. It’s not in your head.
The chest pain I endured was actual chest pain. It was not make believe.
So, can anxiety cause nausea? Yes, absolutely. And the way forward is not to treat the nausea but to treat the anxiety. You might be exhibiting physical illness symptoms but if it is being brought on by anxiety then it is a mental issue that needs to be addressed, not a physical one.