Stress is not just a purely mental problem; stress affects the body and can cause physical symptoms. Stress has different physical effects on different people, but in some cases the effects can be profound. One common effect of stress is to cause stomach aches and other digestive symptoms. Many people will get stomach cramps, acid reflux or other gastrointestinal problems like increased bowel motility when they are experiencing acute stress or anxiety.
Not all people are affected by these problems, but it is estimated that one to three quarters of people are affected at some point in their life. It appears as though some people just have digestive systems that are more sensitive to stress than others. The gut has a lot of nerve endings that are not under conscious control. One reason why stress and anxiety may cause gastrointestinal symptoms like stomach cramps in many people is because the chemicals that are involved in the fight-or-flight response, such as adrenaline, have a direct effect on the digestive system. People who have a stronger reaction to stressful situations and are more prone to anxiety may have more of these chemicals in a stressful situation. These chemicals make digestion slow down, divert blood flow from the gastrointestinal tract and cause symptoms of indigestion.
Evidence suggests that long-term stress, such as stress that is caused by a job or military service, can cause longer-term symptoms in individuals who have digestive systems that are sensitive to stress. This can take the form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). People who have mental illnesses that can increase stress levels, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also prone to physical symptoms like abdominal pain and digestive upsets.
Treating gastrointestinal symptoms caused by stress can be difficult, because the most effective treatment is managing stress levels. It is difficult to get a handle on stress, especially if the stress is caused by a job or something else that is constantly present in your life. If stress and anxiety is a frequent problem in your life, talk to your doctor about how to manage your stress levels. High stress levels are not just a mental problem that you have to deal with; stress takes a physical toll on the body and can cause pain and other problems.