We tend to think of stress as being a purely psychological phenomenon – as something that happens inside our brains and affects our mood. But in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The reality is that stress is a physiological response to environmental cues that is linked with your psychological state, but not dependent on it. Stress can therefore have profound physical impacts on your body – drastically altering the way you feel and your long-term health. Countless conditions and sensations can be traced back to stress that you might not originally think to associate with it—like nausea and vomiting.
In this post, we’ll take a look at what stress nausea and stress induced vomiting are, and what you should do if you do experience the symptoms.
How Does Stress Cause Nausea And Vomiting?
Specifically, the stress response is handled by the sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system. This system is responsible for preparing you for dangerous encounters, which it does by:
- Dilating the pupils (so that you let in more light and can see more clearly)
- Contracting the muscles (to increase your strength)
- Increasing blood flow to the muscles and the brain
- Heightening your senses
- Increasing your heart rate
- Thickening the blood (increasing ‘viscosity’) so that you will be better able to form scabs if you’re cut and begin to bleed out.
This is the ‘fight or flight response’ and as the name suggests, its role is to prepare you to either run away from the threat, or to fight it.
So how does this cause nausea?
It actually comes from a few different aspects of the fight or flight response.
For one, when blood is rushed to the muscles and the brain to heighten your reflexes and increase your strength, that means that it has to be directed away from somewhere. And specifically, that means that blood is going to be taken away from the digestive system, the immune system and other ‘non-urgent’ systems in your body.
This is one of the things that can cause the sensation of ‘butterflies’ in your stomach, as the stomach literally stops functioning properly and your digestion becomes stunted.
At the same time, when you’re stressed, you begin to breathe more rapidly. This is intended to help get more oxygen to your muscles and brain, to further enhance performance.
Actually though, this too can end up causing you to feel sick. That’s because you are at risk of ‘overbreathing’, which is something that happens when you breathe too quickly and thus don’t inhale and exhale fully. More specifically, when you overbreathe, you tend not to exhale fully, which means your blood becomes overly saturated with oxygen and your levels of carbon dioxide go down.
While we always think of oxygen as being the most ‘useful’ molecule in the air, carbon dioxide actually plays a very important role too. Specifically, it is used by the body to extract oxygen from our red blood cells. So, you can have all of the oxygen you like, but without CO2, you won’t be able to use it!
This means you can end up getting insufficient useable energy and oxygen to the brain, which in turn can cause you to feel dizzy and light headed. Eventually, that can lead to fainting. The body interprets dizziness and light-headedness as being symptoms of poisoning or infection; and therefore you may start vomiting to try and drive out the infection.
Then there’s the fact that tensing the muscles can cause you to feel sick and nauseous if it tenses the muscles around the bowels. Also, as we’ve discussed in another article, high levels of stress hormones can actually encourage voiding of the bowels (which is why some people soil or wet themselves when experiencing extreme fear).
More interesting is the possible role of the neurotransmitters that are produced and utilized within the gut. The stomach is sometimes referred to as the ‘second brain’ and we’re understanding its key role in regulating emotion more and more.
In short then, there are lots of ways in which acute bouts of extreme stress can trigger vomiting and sickness.
How to Reduce Stress Nausea
So, what can you do to prevent stress induced nausea and vomiting? Here are a few of the most effective options to try next time you find your butterflies turning into something more violent and eruptive.
1. Practice Deep Breathing
One of the most important things you can do is focus on your breathing. Our breathing is the main input we have for controlling our autonomic nervous system, and people like Wim Hof have demonstrated to what extent this is possible (look him up if you want to see some incredible feats).
For our purposes, we know that using slow, rhythmic breathing can help to calm the nervous system via the vagus nerve. It seems in fact that by breathing rhythmically, it might actually be possible to entrain the heart rate, slowing it down and helping to reduce the production of epinephrine.
At the same time, by breathing more deeply and fully, you can avoid overbreathing and help to combat the dizziness and feeling light-headed. Try using yogic ‘belly breathing’.
Here, you breathe by first relaxing the stomach in order to open up more space in the abdominal cavity. The lungs will then drop down into that space, allowing you to fill them gradually from bottom to top, using a large, steady inhalation. You then fill all the way up to the chest, before exhaling.
If nothing else, using breathing techniques like this can help you to distract yourself from the stressor (whatever is making you stressed) and thereby calm nerves.
2. Try CBT
What is potentially even more valuable is to use something called CBT. This is ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ and it’s all about changing the way you perceive the threats around you. If you can convince yourself that there’s nothing to be stressed about, then you can calm your own physiological response and reduce the feelings of sickness.
To do this, ask yourself what’s actually making you feel so stressed? In most cases, this won’t be something immediately life threatening but is more likely to be something like finances or perhaps relationship problems.
The next question then, is whether the situation is really as bad as you perceive it to be.
Ask yourself: what is really the worst case outcome that you face? And ask yourself this too: how likely is it that this worst case outcome would happen?
And if it did happen… are there things you could do to cope?
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you have to do a presentation to a large audience and it’s making you stressed and anxious. First ask what the worst case scenario is. Maybe you think you might get booed off the stage. Using CBT, you might change your thought process to:
- Most people are not so cruel – it’s unlikely it would ever go this far
- Who cares if strangers that you’ll never see again don’t like you?
This is ‘cognitive restructuring’ and when you combine it with corrective breathing, you can see amazing results.
3. Master The AWARE Method
A form of CBT that is used specifically to address panic attacks and stress-induced nausea, is called the ‘AWARE’ method. A.W.A.R.E is an acronym that stands for:
The idea here, is that many people actually make anxiety worse because they become stressed about the anxiety itself. So instead of freaking out that you feel ill, that you might faint, or that you might be sick in public, instead:
- Accept the anxiety and the fact that it will happen, and it will pass.
- Watch the anxiety. Don’t try to force it to change, just observe it and let it run its course.
- Act normal. Other than noting the anxiety, just continue to do whatever you’re doing.
- Repeat the first three steps.
- Expect the best outcome.
Many people find that taking these few steps alone can often be enough to help themselves get their anxiety and nausea under control.
4. Address the Symptoms
Finally, you can also take steps to address the symptoms. Often, adding sugar to the diet can help as it will elevate serotonin and reduce cortisol. Having a warm, sweet drink is often great comfort. Just don’t make it a habit!
You should also drink plenty of water which can help cool you down and also abate some symptoms. Likewise, try to stick to eating dry crackers and other plain foods.
Of course, removing yourself from the situation is always a good idea if possible.
If you follow all these steps and all these tips, then you should find that you start to feel better. Hopefully, with time you will find it easier and easier to deal with the symptoms yourself.
If that doesn’t happen though? Speak with your physician – they will likely have tips and advice you can follow to get your anxiety under control and to avoid stress-induced vomiting and nausea.