Photograph by Lisa Marie-Kaspar
My final year 12 exams start next month, and I am quite an anxious person. And even though I have gotten really good at controlling my thoughts that make me anxious by relaxing with deep breathing and all that, my body lets me down sometimes. I get an upset stomach and digestive issues and this is what really stresses me out during an exam as it makes me tense up, thus increasing my stress because I focus on that feeling. I’m not able to perform as well as I would be able to because I’m worried that my belly will make embarrassing noises, and that I’ll need to go to the bathroom etc. It’s really annoying because I want to do my absolute best, but all I can think is that I want this exam to be over as soon as possible!! 🙁 Any tips???
I just want to start by saying a huge thank you for writing to us. We love hearing from you and will do our very best to help you with your concern.
This issue you describe speaks to me on a spiritual level. My whole life, my anxiety has revolved around my stomach, digestion, and making sure I know where the toilet is. I can relate to this so much that it is giving me stomach cramps at the thought of answering this for you. Both out of sympathy and excitement haha.
Firstly, I just want to let you know that you’re not alone. Not only have I always had stomach problems related to anxiety, but as I have grown to an age where talking about your toilet habits is no longer embarrassing, but a legitimate conversation to have with someone you just met, I have come to realise that almost ALL my friends have digestive issues. We talk about “nervous poos,” we talk about embarrassing gas, we talk so much bloating that you can’t do your pants up and need to wear stretchy pants for a while. It’s a topic I will never tire of and one that seems to always be relevant.
Science is discovering more and more about how our emotions affect the gut. The gut is often referred to as the second brain, as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can really affect how your stomach works and vice versa. Your stomach issues are related to the fight or flight response which you can learn more about here.
It’s great to hear you already have some good habits around deep breathing and controlling your anxiety; that’s a really great start and breathing can really help in this situation. Another thing I have learnt is to not fight the feeling. If you are having anxiety about your stomach, notice it and label it: “there is my stomach anxiety.” Often, the more we fight it, the more we tense up. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s worth giving a try.
Know that you have had these feelings before, and you have gotten through whatever task was at hand. Also maybe acknowledge the worst possible outcome. You said your fear is your stomach making embarrassing noises (I used to fear the exact same thing), but what will happen if your stomach does this? Will anyone think less of you? Will you fail your exam? The answer is no. And often times when I was in this situation and worried about my stomach grumbling loudly, I would hear multiple people’s tummies make noises before mine ever did. Try and remember that a lot of people are going to be having these feelings and if your stomach does grumble first, they may just be relieved that they aren’t the only ones with a nervous tummy.
In regards to needing to go to the toilet, from my experience, before any big event, it’s quite normal to feel like you’re going to be sick and to feel like you are going to need to go right in the middle of the exam. You may go to the toilet a few times before your exam; this is normal. Why do you think the phrase “I’m shitting myself” is so commonly used when people are nervous? It’s because people really do go to the toilet a lot when they’re anxious! It’s important to know that usually once you’re in the exam or whatever is making your stomach nervous, you won’t need to go to the toilet. Your brain and body are really smart and they know you have to concentrate when it’s not the right time. But let’s just say you do need to go to the toilet; that’s OK too. It’s not the end of the world and you certainly won’t be the first person to need to go to the toilet during an exam.
I have done a bit of a research and also took into account my own experience with this issue and have compiled a list of tips below that may help you with your stomach anxiety:
- Don’t fight the feeling. Remind yourself that you’ve had this feeling so many times before and the world hasn’t ended. Just label it and try to relax into it.
- Visualise. Before your exams, visualise them going really well. Visualise yourself being calm and not noticing your stomach anxiety.
- Eat something calming beforehand and sip on water during your exam. To avoid stomach rumbles, eat something that will keep you full for longer such as porridge (oats are very good for calming the tummy too), or potatoes (they are plain and calming and keep you feeling full for longer). And having water in the exam can stave off tummy pain and rumbles. Peppermint tea is also wonderful for stomach pain but make sure you have this early enough before an exam so you don’t have to pee lots! This all being said, there’s no one perfect food/diet for keeping people’s stomachs calm. You may have to experiment a little bit to see what works best for you.
- Have a good exercise regime before your exams. Whenever I felt nervous before exams, I would go for a run. You have a lot of adrenaline in your system when you are anxious, so you need to get that out in a healthy way. Exercising can really help your anxiety and make you feel strong and calm.
- Be kind to yourself. Know that you will most likely feel some amount of anxiety, and that’s probably a positive thing! A small amount of nerves help us perform at our best and it shows us that we really care about something. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel anxious and if your tummy makes weird noises, know that that is totally normal and no one will think any less of you! Maybe make a little mantra up about being kind to yourself; I know I often beat myself up about things that are so normal and having something to say to myself that is kind can really help.
I hope this has been helpful. The main thing I want you to know is that you’re not alone. Not only do most people experience this at some point in their life but it is something I am well versed with and at 29, I can tell you it gets better. Good luck with your exams, you’re going to be amazing!