Can stress from school cause nausea and stomachaches?

Hi Alice,

I'm a student in the midst of midterms and all that, so I've been really busy and not taking as good care of myself as usual (though trying my best), though I wouldn't say that I've been any more stressed than your average student. My question has to do with nausea though: I've been waking up lately and my stomach hurts and I don't know why. I can't think of any medical/strictly physiological reason why, so I was wondering: is it possible that this is stress related? (Can stress/anxiety make one sick with a knot in their stomach??) This has only happened a few times, recently, all during this midterm/work craziness.

Sick from Stress???

Dear Sick from Stress???,

Although any college student is probably used to the feeling of being sick of stress, it's possible, as you suggested, that you're sick from stress as well. The relationship between the gut and the brain is a close one. It’s generally recognized that psychological or emotional trauma or activation can cause nausea and vomiting in some people. These symptoms have been reported to occur under highly stressful conditions such as loss of a job, death of a loved one, or anxiety about school or work.

Another possibility to think about is if your eating and drinking habits change when you're pressed for time. The caffeine in coffee or tea, which many rely on to get through a long night of hitting the books, can often cause an upset stomach. Acidic drinks such as citrus juices can also have this effect, as well as foods that are spicy or have lots of fat. If you find that your diet changes to include more of these options, then this might also be another culprit responsible for your stomach sorrows. 

Many other conditions could be responsible for stomach pains or nausea, ranging from lactose intolerance, constipation, heartburn or indigestion, to food poisoning. If the nausea or vomiting occurs soon after eating a particular food or medication is accompanied by severe headache, stiff neck, difficulty breathing, confusion, or lasts continuously for 48 hours, then it may be an emergency and seeking immediate medical care is advised. Mild stomach pains and nausea may be relieved or lessened by sipping water or other clear liquids, avoiding solid foods until your stomach feels better, or taking antacids if you think it's related to heartburn. If you're in doubt of whether or not to see your health care provider, it's wise to err on the side of caution and go see them. Besides making sure that your symptoms aren't due to a serious or life-threatening condition, they may be able to help in finding out what is causing your nausea, as well as help you to end it for good.

To combat the stress (and hopefully your nausea and stomachaches) associated with midterms or finals, you may find these stress management tips to be useful:

  • Practice meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, or other relaxation techniques.
  • Try stretching! Stretching can relax your muscles, which is a step toward relaxing your mind as well.
  • Catch some Zzzs! Even though getting enough quality sleep at night is ideal, a 20 to 30 minute nap in the afternoon can be a great way to recharge if needed.
  • Get your body moving — even a brisk 20-minute walk around campus can get your endorphins flowing, re-energizing your body and mind.
  • Eat balanced meals that nourish your body, and plan ahead to have snacks available during study time.
  • Reach out to people you trust — whether it's a friend or professional, social support can help reduce stress during difficult times.

Good luck with your exams and papers. It's a good idea to take care of your grades, but it's also good to remember to take care of yourself and your body. Learning to manage stress is a life skill that will serve you well during midterms, finals, and throughout all of your endeavors.

Last updated Apr 10, 2020
Originally published Dec 06, 2007

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