Next to a toothache, a stomach cramp is probably one of the most distracting physical irritations. When the center of your torso is in pain or cramping, it is very difficult to think about anything else. As we think back on the worst flu or issues related to food poisoning, it is usually the stomach that we find most upsetting. There is a sense of lack of control that is overwhelming.
People often report that they feel like their body has betrayed them. In a way, it is a betrayal. However, it is due to the change in the body’s chemistry, because of the stress of experiencing anxiety. The stomach can have pain or cramping, and there can also be intestinal upheaval. Any or all of these can be the result of anxiety.1 The pain may happen as a panic attack is occurring or at another seemingly unrelated time. This is due to creating a “habit.” Your stomach reacts with, or without, a conscious anxiety stimulus.
The best approach is to do all that is possible, right away, to ease the anxiety. If the stress continues for an extended period of time, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, various digestive disorders, chronic abdominal tension, stomach ulcers, or even stomach cancer could develop. These are real issues, which have been found to be the result of untreated stress. The stress has caused continued anxiety that releases epinephrine. This chemical stimulates excess stomach acid in order to motivate you to outrun the cave lion that is chasing you. If there is no fierce animal chasing you, then your body has produced an abundance of chemicals for no reason. The result is an inappropriate overload of the “fight or flight” response.2
Now, that you are clear about the necessity of making the right choices quickly, let us consider ways to reduce the pain, cramping, or other intestinal discomfort. One method is to pay very close attention to what you are eating. Think of the first solid diet of an infant. Babies are fed easy-to-digest puréed fruits and vegetables. This diet has a lot of vitamins and minerals, but is not irritating to the stomach. As an adult, you do not need your food mashed, because you have a mouth full of teeth. You do need your food machine-processed; just chew an apple, carrot, salad or a banana well before swallowing. Be sure to take in enough water; an empty stomach can be far more irritating than one with some cool water. Furthermore, you need to stay well hydrated to keep stomach pain away. Eating whole-grains like brown rice, barley, oatmeal, or whole-wheat pasta is equally effective for reducing pain. Avoid all hard-to-digest items like fried foods (donuts are the worst!), any dairy (no cheese, ice cream, yogurt, or butter) or any animal flesh (no beef, pork, lamb, chicken, or fish). Each of these items is likely to increase the stomach pain, cramping or other intestinal discomfort.
All the other methods of reducing stress and therefore, anxiety, can be applied to stomach pain. You might combine them. Sit outside in a rocking chair, while you sip tea and eat a light salad and listen to soft music.3 You will be surprised how quickly your intestinal distress may pass into just a bad memory.
- Means-Christensen, A., Roy-Byrne, P., Sherbourne, S., Craske, M., and Stein, M. 2008. Relationships Among Pain, Anxiety, and Depression in Primary Care. Depression and Anxiety, Vol 25/7, pp 593-600.
- McWilliams, L., Goodwin, R., and Cox, B. 2004. Depression and Anxiety With Three Pain Conditions Results from a Nationally Representative Sample. Pain, Vol 111/1-2, pp 77-83.
- Deng, Gary and Barrie Cassileth, 2009. Integrative Oncology: Complementary Therapies for Pain, Anxiety, and Mood Disturbance. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. Vol. 55, Issue 2, pp 109-116.