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Anxiety and digestion – what’s the connection?

We all know that anxiety, especially intense and prolonged anxiety, is bad for our health. One thing that does not get a lot of attention, however, is how anxiety affects the digestive system.

The threat response

The limbic system is the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses, especially our survival responses like fighting or running away from a predator. 

When the limbic system senses a threat, it sends messages to the nervous system so that we can respond. 

The nervous system has 2 branches, the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). The sympathetic branch primes us for action. Muscles get tense, eyes widen, breathing and heart rate get faster. Metabolic resources are diverted away from things that are not that essential in the moment, such as digestion or immune system function, so that we can have all of our resources available for taking action to survive. 

The parasympathetic branch returns things to normal after the threat is over. Muscles relax, heart rate and breathing slow, digestive function returns. 

This beautifully orchestrated system was designed for immediate threats. It was meant to be a short-term solution. The fight-or-flight system kicks in to get us out of danger; the rest-and-digest relaxation system kicks in when the threat is over to bring things back to normal. When the fight-or-flight system is activated, the rest-and-digest system is not, and vice-versa.

Anxiety and digestion

So what about today? We don’t have hungry tigers roaming our world, but we do have plenty of other things that can feel threatening. Watching the news can fire our limbic systems. So can financial insecurity, worrying about our children’s safety, or unresolved past emotional issues or traumas. Even our self-critical thinking can make us feel like we are in life-or-death situations if it is intense enough. 

If we constantly feel under threat, if our fight-or-flight stress systems are in a state of chronic activation, the part of the nervous system responsible for digesting our food, absorbing the nutrients, and moving things through our intestines is not functioning properly. 

The result? Digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, chronic diarrhea or constipation, bloating and gas, acid reflux, or feeling like your food is just sitting like a lump in your stomach. 

Many clients have found that Square Breathing can help improve digestive function. Practiced for 3-5 minutes before meals, it activates the parasympathetic, rest-and-digest branch of the nervous system and facilitates blood flow to the digestive system. 

Downloadable exercise (PDF) 
Square Breathing 

The bottom line is that the human body is an exquisitely designed system. We have everything we need to respond effectively to threats. We also have everything we need to bring ourselves back into balance. We just need to cultivate reliable and consistent practices to activate that part of the nervous system. 

When we do, our mind and bodies, particularly our digestive systems, reap the benefits.