In times of acute stress, my body has one of two responses: pass out or throw up. I appear to have no instincts for fight or flight — just flounder.
While my fainting can happen with very little warning (I’ve done it on public transportation, at work, and once on a first date), my nausea is more of a slow burn. If I’m concerned about a project, nervous about a meeting, or worried about a friend, I will feel sick for hours, days, or even longer. I know it’s not uncommon — but why does it happen? And in times of continued stress, like the last 15 months have been, how can I get it under control?
“We tend to think of emotions as being all in our heads, but emotions can trigger real physiological changes in our bodies,” said Dr. Harika Pal, a family-medicine physician with Parsley Health. “Think about how nerves can make your palms sweat or your heart race — it’s mental, but you feel it physically.” There’s a connection between the mind and gut, she adds, with a particular link between the brain and digestion.
Essentially, this all harks back to our cave-dwelling days. “Nausea is a result of our sympathetic nervous systems ramping up and firing off more adrenaline to get us ready for a fight,” explained Dr. Pal. “When we perceive a threat, our emotions trigger our neurotransmitters, which in turn trigger many organs, not just the brain.” Individual responses vary, of course; some people, like myself, feel this kind of anxiety nausea acutely. But for others, it’s barely noticeable, or manifests itself through different symptoms, like restlessness.
Aside from being unpleasant, long-term or intermittent nausea can compound itself if it affects your appetite. If I feel sick and can’t eat much, then I feel even worse, and the cycle continues. In cases like that, Dr. Pal recommends examining the anxiety rather than trying to force food. “It’s more about what triggered you in the first place. Were you running on fumes all day, and have lots of adrenaline coursing through your system? Maybe you’re just so ramped up, you can’t really register your appetite.”
This process of calming down could be as simple as taking a few moments to breathe deeply, or speaking to a friend or loved one, she explains. When I asked her if certain foods are better to consume when stressed, she said to eat what you can, but that tackling anxiety should bring back your regular appetite soon enough.
Dr. Pal also pointed out that symptoms of stress can linger after a stressor is resolved, or when something seems like it shouldn’t be such a big deal. I can relate to this: Sometimes, when a busy week is finally over and I know I should relax, I still can’t wind down. In those moments, according to Dr. Pal, it’s far better to recognize what’s happening and let my brain and body process the events of the day than it is to try to ignore the signs and push them away.
If you’re concerned about your nausea, or it starts to disrupt your food intake regularly, Dr. Pal recommends reaching out to a doctor. “For most people, you shouldn’t be feeling nausea on a day-to-day basis. A small bout connected to a particular moment of stress and anxiety is understandable, but if it’s becoming a regular thing, speak to your health provider.”