human brain model in hands, top view

How Stress Impacts The Gut & How to Manage

Amber Cohen, PsyD, CPsych

Written by: Amber Cohen, PsyD, CPsych

Updated: January 17th, 2023

The mind-gut connection is a two-way street: how we think and feel impacts the gut, and the status of the gut impacts how we think and feel. Let’s delve further into how stress impacts the gut and how to manage it!

Understanding Our Stress Response: 

When we experience stress, our evolutionary protective physical mechanism gets activated – this is our fight-flight-freeze response which defends us from danger. We fight back, flee/avoid the situation for safety, or shut down and disengage in hopes our opponent/difficulty will move on.  

When this response gets activated, our bodies physicality changes in order to help protect ourselves. The body diverts all of its energy and resources into fight-flight-freeze actions which causes digestions to slow or stop. This is when gastro symptoms can get activated, because expelling food from your body that needs to be digested is a way to conserve resources for survival actions. 

Women sitting on couch, stressed and holding her head while also holding stomach with a gut issue.

Common gut symptoms we experience when under stress are: 

The bad news is our brains are not the best at distinguishing between physical and emotional safety. So when a situation triggers fear, but we are not in physical danger, the same fight-flight-freeze alarm system gets activated in our bodies. These responses become additionally problematic when we experience chronic stress, worry, anxiety and/or fear.  If you think of your fight-flight-freeze response as a smoke detector in your body – your smoke detector is going off when you are burning a piece of toast instead of when there is a true fire. These chronic feelings can leave us feeling overwhelmed and fatigued as our bodies are constantly being activated.  

The good news is we can provide information to our brains via thoughts and behaviours so it can better assess between physical and emotional safety. Utilizing coping strategies can improve our emotional well-being and our physical reactivity to stress. 

How to Manage your Stress Response: 

Taking inventory and building awareness of your symptoms is the first step in managing your physical response to stress.

  1. First, gain awareness of if you tend to fight, flee or freeze. Think about a recent stressful experience. Did you try and get out of the situation as quickly as possible? Did you feel frozen and unable to think clearly? Did you argue, get defensive or aggressive without being able to actually articulate what you wanted to? Knowing how you naturally respond in these moments can allow you to flag your awareness and utilize coping skills. 
  2. Gain awareness of how your body responds. What physical symptoms do you have when in stressful situations? Knowing this can allow you to use coping strategies that target your specific symptoms. 
  3. Utilize coping strategies. Coping strategies are unique to each individual. It is important to experiment with strategies and see what you enjoy and works for you. Additionally, coping strategies often are skills we need to strengthen, so practicing them helps build them as a resource in our tool box. 

Common Coping Strategies: 

  1. Relaxation Techniques: This can be anything that works to relax your mind and body by bringing your awareness into the present without thinking about the future. Common examples are: visual meditations, breathing meditations, mindful stretching, etc. If you have specific gastrointestinal symptoms think about what relaxation techniques can target that area. Perhaps try a visualization that focuses on your stomach or pick stretches that soothe that area. 
  2. Exercise: At this point we have probably all heard of how good exercise is for us, but it can be so hard to do! Try and choose physical movement you actually enjoy. You don’t have to be the fittest person alive, just move your body in a way that intuitively feels good for you! 
  3. Self-Talk: Be your own coach! Notice how you speak to yourself and try and meet yourself with compassionate kindness. Say the things to yourself you would a friend in a similar situation. This may be really hard at first, as we are often our own worst critics, but criticism exacerbates stress. As you practice changing your thoughts, you will actually rewire your brain pathways and this effective self-talk will get easier over time.  
  4. Enact Your Joy: Do anything that is healthy for you and sparks joy. Common examples are: listening or playing music, engaging in arts or crafts, reading, etc. If you have specific gastro symptoms think about what relaxation techniques can target that area. Perhaps a warm bath or mindfully drinking a soothing tea can help. 

When we work to take care of ourselves, this will calm our fight-flight-freeze response and reduce our gastrointestinal symptoms. It does take some effort and practice, but it is worth the benefit to our minds and bodies! 

Related Articles:

View all News & Articles

human brain model in hands, top view

How Stress Impacts The Gut & How to Manage

Meditation for Mind Gut Connection

Webinar: Mind-Gut Connections for Digestive Disorders

Women looking at skin in mirror

How Does Your Gut Health Affect Your Skin?

yoga class

The Importance of Managing Stress for People who Suffer from IBS

Women laughing in yoga pose

Wait… My Gut Affects My Mental Health?

Bowl of healthy salad and tofu

Mental Health and Nutrition