Being stressed and nervous about certain unfamiliar or difficult situations is normal. When the feeling of anxiousness becomes too severe, or if it arises in situations that most would consider being comparatively normal, then that presents a problem. Anxiety can cause a number of symptoms, including nausea and many others. Persistent, debilitating anxiety is known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and it is something that can have an impact on both physical and mental wellbeing.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can cause many psychological symptoms, including:
- Problems concentrating
- Sense of dread
- Constant “on edge” feeling
In addition, to these, it can cause a number of physical symptoms, such as:1
- Chronic tiredness
- Shaking & trembling
- Tension & muscle fatigue
- Dry mouth
- Pins and needles
Those Symptoms Are Not Just in Your Head
The symptoms you feel during a bout of anxiety are real. They may be relatively benign compared to how serious they feel in the moment, but they are real. If you can focus your mind on remembering that you are going to be okay and that the symptoms will pass, then this could help you to get through the episode a little more easily.
The Link Between Anxiety And Nausea
There’s a reason for the saying that the thought of something makes you sick to your stomach. Nausea is a very common symptom of anxiety. Indeed, you may remember as a child having a tummy ache and feeling too sick to go to school. Your parents may have thought you were making your illness up to get out of the fact that you had not handed your homework in, but you may have genuinely felt ill. The unwell feeling may come from the fact that you were nervous about getting told off by your teacher, but the feeling is just as real nonetheless.
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The physiological symptoms of anxiety are caused by the hormones that the body releases during an anxiety attack. We have evolved to feel stress when we are in difficult or threatening situations— whether that is a pressing need to find shelter before the weather gets cold, or a need to escape from a predator, the idea is that the stress response will prepare you to act by making you more alert and getting you ready for a fight or flight situation. Your heart rate increases to help your blood circulate more effectively. Your muscles tense up to get ready to for use, and your breathing becomes more rapid so that you can get more oxygen into your bloodstream. Sometimes, this backfires. In the case of anxiety, your stress response has gone into overdrive, and you don’t actually have anything to run from.
Nausea is your body telling you that you’re in danger. It may be a warning sign that you shouldn’t eat because the things around you are toxic. It can be an attempt to make you sick so that you will vomit up something bad that you have eaten. Or it may be a response to your stomach being constricted, perhaps because your muscles are so tense from the physiological response to stress.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to manage nausea, because until recently medical professionals have focused on ways to alleviate the issue of vomiting.2 Nausea has simply been treated as a precursor to vomiting. In some respects, this makes sense. However, it fails to acknowledge the fact that nausea is actually just as debilitating as vomiting. Anyone who has ever experienced true motion sickness, the kind that will not go away even after vomiting, will understand how life-affecting nausea can be. Nausea that comes from anxiety can be just as stressful as the feeling of motion sickness.
Managing Nausea Caused By Anxiety
Nausea that is caused by anxiety can sometimes be a simple feeling of being unwell, but sometimes it can include the urge to vomit. In both scenarios, it can greatly interfere with your day to day life.
When you are in the middle of an anxiety attack, there is very little that you can do to control how your body responds. Even if a part of your brain rationally knows that the situation is not dangerous and that nothing bad is going to happen, your body has been producing adrenaline, which has made you anxious, and you will have to ride out that rush of adrenaline. You can try to slow down your breathing and distract yourself. It’s also helpful to take some deep breaths and try to finish what you are doing. Challenging yourself to remain in the stressful situation can be a way to help desensitize yourself to the anxiety over time. However, it’s also possible that the situation is one you need to avoid or change.
In most cases, an anxiety attack will not last for long and you should find that when it passes, nausea passes with it. Your best strategy for controlling nausea is to try to manage the anxiety in the first place. You can do this in a number of ways:
Light exercise such as jogging or aerobics can help to fight anxiety because it will tire out your muscles, and therefore help you to relax. Jogging releases feel-good hormones that can help to improve your mood, and it also helps to deplete your adrenaline, which will help to control your anxiety. Someone who is suffering from nausea will probably want to avoid very strenuous exercise.
There are some herbal supplements that can help to reduce anxiety, such as kava, passionflower and valerian root. Children and pregnant women should not take any supplements without first seeking advice from a doctor or a certified nutritionist. If you are taking prescription medication then you should seek advice from your doctor before taking any herbal remedies, because many herbs can interact with medications and either make them less effective or increase the risk of an overdose. The unpredictable nature of the interaction between herbs and medications means that herbal remedies should only be used under the supervision of a medical professional.
Mindfulness and meditation exercises can help to clear your head and reduce the chances of you suffering from an anxiety attack, and can reduce the feeling of stress and anxiety that you have on a day to day basis. It only takes a few minutes of meditation a day to see the benefits, and it can even produce lasting benefits, slowly training and relaxing your brain.3
Slow, deep and deliberate breathing can help to focus your mind and stop anxiety in its tracks. Practice deep breathing at times when you feel stressed or anxious. Breathe in slowly, counting to ten as you go, then hold your breath for a second or two then breathe out, again counting to ten. This will slow your heart rate, and help you to clear your head by making you focus on your own breathing instead of focusing on whatever it is that made you feel anxious.
Follow a Healthy Diet
Try to eat a healthy diet, as much as possible, and to stick to a regular schedule of eating. While the issue here is not always as simple as “junk food makes you anxious”, the food that you eat can contribute to how you feel. Alcohol can impair sleep quality, and caffeine can make you feel jittery, both of which can lead to anxiety. Some people experience mild nausea following a meal that is greasy or loaded with fat, and since anxiety can amplify normal day-to-day feelings, eating a heavy, fat-loaded meal can amplify anxiety-related nausea to the point it becomes unbearable.
Do not fall into the trap of simply not eating because you know that you might feel sick if you are nervous about something. In some cases, an empty stomach can lead to more nausea than if you had eaten a meal. Try to find food that you tolerate well, which will settle your stomach. Be sure to stay hydrated too since, often, dehydration can contribute to anxiety. Drinking plain water should not aggravate nausea, so it is a good choice for people who are feeling unwell.
Find Ways to Relax and Unwind
For many people, anxiety and nausea are a result of chronic stress. If that sounds like your situation then it makes sense to try to find ways to reduce the stress that you feel. Some people like to schedule 30 minutes each night to read a book. Some people find that getting a massage or using aromatherapy oils helps them. Indeed, there have been a number of studies conducted into the effectiveness of aromatherapy for treating anxiety, and also studies into how effective aromatherapy is for treating nausea.4
There are some over-the-counter (OTC) remedies for both anxiety and nausea, and these can be worth trying, as long as you are not already taking any prescription medication. Talk to a pharmacist or a doctor before trying any remedies, to make sure that there are no contraindications. Read the active ingredients and try to understand what they do.
Anxiety disorders are actually the most prevalent of all the mental health conditions. They are less visible than some other conditions, but they are still disabling for those who are affected by them. The diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders were revised as a part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM-5; the manual used by mental health professionals), and the way that the conditions are treated is evolving too. The medical profession is slowly getting better at understanding how anxiety works and offering different treatment options, including more primary care options that will help people to function more easily in society while coping with anxiety and nausea or other symptoms.5
In the short term, finding ways to calm an anxiety attack and get rid of the feeling of nausea is a useful coping strategy. However, in the long term, it makes sense to do everything that you can to control your anxiety. Try to identify triggers and reduce them, and find ways to cope during day to day life. There is help and support out there for people who are suffering from anxiety, and often, talking to people who are going through the same thing can help you to find new ways to control your condition, and give you some reassurance that you are not alone.