Can Stress Cause an Upset Stomach?

Man experincing stress while working

Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach before giving a speech or right at the top of a roller coaster just before the plunge? Have you felt “gutted” after losing a big game, ending a relationship, or getting some bad news? Maybe you’re going through a stressful time in your life and you’ve started experiencing stomach cramps or other digestive issues.

Stress can lead to an upset stomach as well as other digestive problems. While these symptoms aren’t uncommon, it’s important that you share this information with your doctor.

Feelings of stress or anxiety can lead to digestive problems such as stomachaches or stomach cramps. Be sure to talk to your doctor about stress-related digestive issues. Click To Tweet

Your upset stomach may be cause by stress

An upset stomach is one of the most common symptoms of stress and anxiety. This can come from a single stressful moment — like public speaking or a bad breakup — or chronic worry over time from work or a global pandemic.

If your stomach hurts without any obvious cause, such as food illness, it’s possible that feelings of stress or anxiety could be the trigger. In addition to stomachaches, stress can also cause other digestive problems:

  • indigestion
  • upset stomach
  • stomach cramps
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • urgency to evacuate the bowels (tenesmus)
  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • hunger
  • heartburn

While these symptoms may stem from stress or anxiety, they can also become a source of stress. For example, someone who experiences diarrhea or urgency with bowel movements may fear having an accident in public; this can prevent them from leaving their home or limit the places they go.

The brain-gut connection.

Your brain and the enteric nervous system in the GI tract are closely connected. The digestive system contains the largest area of nerves outside of the brain. Feelings of stress and anxiety can influence the nerves in your digestive tract and trigger stronger and more frequent contractions.

Stress signals can change the way that the GI system functions, which can lead to stress-related digestive problems.

When should you see a doctor for gastrointestinal problems?

Mild or occasional digestive problems due to stress are common. However, this doesn’t mean that you should dismiss these symptoms.

Tell your doctor about symptoms such as nausea, stomachache, cramps, or diarrhea. The more your doctor knows about your health, the better the quality of care you receive.

These symptoms could indicate a manageable digestive problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome. The American College of Gastroenterology states that 10 to 15 percent of U.S. adults have symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome; however, only five to seven percent of adults have been diagnosed with IBS.

Talk to your doctor if you experience stress-related digestive problems. Your primary care physician may refer you to a specialist, such as a gastroenterologist.