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If you have anxiety like me, you know that it’s more than just a mental illness. Anxiety affects the body in some pretty intense ways. When anxiety hits, one area it hits hard is the stomach. Along with the brain, the gut has an incredible amount of nerves, making it a “little brain” of sorts. Because of this, the two are closely linked, and the digestive system can be upset by mental stress in the brain. It means that a healthy mind means a healthy body. Understanding this, it’s not difficult to see how constant anxiety can ruin the stomach. For me, I would throw up almost every day at my worst. I would be constipated or have the runs. Or worse, my stomach would just hurt, and I felt like I couldn’t eat or move. I was entirely helpless and even missed out on important dates, school, and hanging out with my friends as a result. It’s been a few years since I’ve felt that upset, but it’s all thanks to some incredible coping mechanisms. There’s nothing too special about them, but that’s the point. While they may not be easy to do when you're in the darkest of your anxious moments, they're easy in the sense that they're simple to do at home. You don't need special equipment or anything like that. With enough practice and baby steps, they can be daily practices.
1. Deep Breathing and Meditation
This one is trickier than it sounds. You can take all the deep breaths that you want, but it may not magically fix anything. Mediation seems super simple. It requires you sit in a calm place and do nothing but breathe. When you do this, you’re in the moment, and so you don’t think about stress or future worries. It’s almost like hitting a reset button. Meditating and deep breathing takes practice, but there are a few things that might help you out. There are methods like Square Breathing to help you measure how long you inhale then exhale. You definitely should breath in through the nose, out through the mouth, and I think the most important thing is to just do you. Some days, I prefer to breath in and out through my mouth. It feels more comfortable that way. Sometimes I sit different ways; cross-legged, feet on the floor, even laying down. Whatever you need to do to breathe deeply, do it. You shouldn’t be afraid to make noise and breathe loudly. Just focus on that, and everything else will melt away, taking your mind off your stomach.
2. Tea is your friend.
I’m a firm believer in saying that there’s a tea for every occasion. In this instance, there’s one that gets me through everything. Peppermint tea. Peppermint is known to help your stomach. I swear by it and recommend it to everyone I possibly can. It’s also great for headaches. Peppermint tea is warm but cooling. It’s mellow on your stomach and the minty sensation feels great in your stomach. When I wake up feeling anxious, I always start my day with some calming peppermint tea. If you’re not quite into minty tea, there are a host of other teas that can help your stomach. There’s ginger, always a good flavor for the stomach. The ever-reliable chamomile or any basic green tea such as jasmine. A nice cup of non-caffeinated tea in the morning is a great way to start.
3. Morning Stretches
While I’m not advertising a full-on yoga routine, I do recommend some stretching. The Mountain pose, Cobra poses, and my favorite Cat/Cow always help me. Anything that stretches out your torso, but nothing too strenuous. Think of it as being a cat waking up from a nap. Getting the blood flowing is essential to starting the day successfully. Sometimes I even just kneel of the floor and twist my torso side to side. Sometimes it looks weird, and my roommates might give me weird looks, but it helps me to get some movement in my body and work the muscles in that gut area.
4. Light Exercise
On the topic of yoga, a little bit of exercise might be good as well. I personally wouldn’t recommend a long session at the gym, but maybe a short walk. If you have a dog, walk it! If you live in an apartment building, walk up and down the stairs. Walk to the store if you can, walk to your mailbox just to check the mail even if you know it isn’t there. If you live by a body of water, go for it! The negative ions produced by flowing water helps you to feel better and balance you out. When I feel too anxious to function, I go to the Seaport or Harbor Walk areas of Boston and watch the seagulls. The one thing I wouldn’t do is to walk in circles. That usually makes me feel more anxious. It’s better to actually be going somewhere and not just moving in a small, confined space.
5. The Sweet Saltines
They’re not really sweet, they’re salty. Saltines are a lifesaver in this department. Nothing is worse than when your stomach hurts because you’re hungry, but it hurts so bad it feels like you can’t eat. It’s like a miserable cycle of not eating. The best way to break the cycle is, sadly, to force yourself to eat something. My go to? Saltines. Those basic little crackers have saved my life. Seriously. When my anxiety kicks in, I can skip meal after meal just from the fear of throwing it back up. When I would have a panic attack, sometimes I could go days without eating anything. Needless to say, this is an unhealthy way of going about life. I’d feel faint at work or school and fail miserably at focusing. I had to find something easy and plain just to make sure I had food in my stomach. Saltines are perfect because you can just pop them in a plastic bag and carry them wherever. Sometimes I eat them on the train going to work if I’m not 100 percent. You can also break off small pieces and nibble on them.
6. Hello stomach. It's me.
I like to think of myself as a think-out-loud type. I have to count out loud and map out stories while making hand gestures, describing actions and plots. With my out-loud thinking, I’ve found that talking to my stomach helps the pain. It’s as simple as putting a hand on my stomach and saying, “Hey Stomach, it’s alright. You’ll be okay,” or “How are you? What are you doing down there?” It sounds really stupid, and I don’t do it in public. People would either think I’m out of my mind or pregnant. At home, it’s perfectly fine. I like to curl up with a blanket and sort of pat my stomach. What this does is make things seem a little less serious. When anxiety hits you and your body feels like shutting down, everything seems like a crisis. Doing something lighthearted can take your mind off the dread. It may not physically heal you, but mentally, it can make you feel better about the situation at hand. So even though it’s strange, maybe give it a try. It might make you laugh and drive the anxiety away for a bit. Distraction may not be the way to always cope with your stress, but occasionally that will do the trick to get you feeling better.
7. Heating Pads Everywhere
I love heating pads. From the ones you can stick on your abdomen under you pants (which are really for menstrual cramps, but actually work for anxiety too, fun fact), to the plug in pads or microwavable plushies, heat is your friend. I have a heating pad that plugs in and turns off automatically after two hours. This is great for me to fall asleep with heat making me feel better, or it can be used right when you wake up in case you wake up anxious. In the night or in the morning are the times when anxiety in the stomach can strike the hardest. In the morning when you’re stomach is empty, the stomach acids can aggravate you more than usual. Heat takes away all kinds of pain, and having it on the center of your body is such a calming feeling. The plushies are extra great because they’re so huggable. Hugging things like that to your stomach is also a great feeling. My plushies that I keep on my bed aren’t microwavable, but hugging them is also a nice comforting sensation for my stomach.
Everyone says it, and I’m no different; water is your best friend. To go along with the idea of the Saltines and tea, water is so neutral. It’s essential to your body and can help all sorts of ailments. When you’re feeling nauseous, water will always be safe, and it’ll help to keep you up and moving during the day, and prevent further problems like headaches that can arise from not eating. Another little hydration tip: Little sips of Gatorade might help. The electrolytes and sugar is a nice kick to keep your body going and relieve stomach pain. Keeping some flavor in your diet when your stomach hurts so bad you can’t eat will help you to eventually go back to your normal diet. Personally, the orange Gatorade is the best one. It’s a little citrusy, and it doesn’t taste as sweet and overpowering as flavors like the red or blue flavors.
9. The Buddy System
I’m not exactly the most social butterfly in the world, but it’s important to have people. My parents are people who know all about my struggles. I have friends who I’ve opened up to about my anxiety. I like to let people know that my stomach goes haywire at time. They know what to expect when I say, “My stomach is having one of those anxious days.” Letting people know how you’re feeling is important. Anxiety can get worse if you let it fester in your head. Worrying thoughts build up and get quicker and quicker in your brain. It’s incredibly overwhelming. When you’re able to say things out loud, it makes them real or puts them in perspective. Once you tell the right people, they can acknowledge your pain and say that it’s real. Outside support helps you feel safer and more comfortable to admit when you’re anxious. Normalizing the mental illness helps you to own it and try to cope instead of hiding and avoiding.
10. Make anxiety your friend (or frenemy).
All of these tips and tricks are great, but I couldn’t be sitting here saying they worked if I didn’t know when to use them. If you’ve been dealing with anxiety for some time, you’ll start to learn your body well. I know that my anxiety feels the worst in the morning, and I have to find foods to eat that won’t upset me. Surprisingly, a plain egg and cheese from Dunkin Donuts is perfect, or a plain bowl of Cheerios. I also know that if I’m about to get on a plane, my stomach will act up. If I’m about to start a new job or I make a mistake at my job, my stomach will act up. Waiting for important emails makes me anxious. I’ve been able to map out what makes my anxiety go right to my stomach, and so I can plan for it. I can make sure to have Saltines in the house and stock up on the peppermint tea. I can start talking to my stomach early and say, “Alright, Stomach, we’ll get through this together.” Building up a toolbox of tricks to help an anxious stomach is one thing, but you have to be able to carry the toolbox when you need it. Everyone has a different body, and they have different reactions to stress. Only you can really know what will make the anxiety worse, and so you can prep for it when you know it’s approaching.
It's not easy living with anxiety. I’m at a point where it’s easier to live day by day than I was six years ago, but it’s still a challenge. When my stomach gets upset, I still have an involuntary panic response initially, thinking, Oh no, I'm back to square one, this is the worst feeling in the world. That's why it’s important to always have an army of coping mechanisms and tricks to get you back on track and kick anxiety in the butt. Or the stomach.