I Have a Nervous Stomach Triggered by Thought Alone

One problem that has caused me considerable grief over the years is my “nervous stomach”. I call my stomach that because whenever I’m in a performance situation or suffering anxiety, my stomach experiences intense “butterflies” followed by nausea and vomiting. This problem was particularly pronounced when I ran races on my school’s track team. Without fail, I would become extremely nervous before races. I would vomit and have diarrhea. Additionally, I also experienced nervousness before performing music concerts; so much nervousness that my performance would suffer as a direct result. I ended up dabbling in mediocrity despite making a determined effort to work hard during track practice and music rehearsal.

To be sure, this wasn’t something that I was mis-perceiving about myself. Both my track coaches and trumpet teacher were baffled as to why I could run fast or play my recital music effortlessly during practice sessions, but was seemingly unable to outdo myself during performances when it counted. They tried various different approaches to “get my head in the game (or concert)”, including everything from yelling at me to attempting to boost my self confidence using a “believe in yourself” approach. Still, I always under-performed and frustrated both myself, my teachers, and my coaches.

The natural question to ask: “Well, if you don’t really enjoy performing, why are you bothering running 7 days a week or practicing your trumpet at least 1.5 hours a day?”. It turns out that part of me really – almost desperately – wanted to achieve success either as an athlete or musician or both. I marveled at fellow athletes and musicians who could execute flawlessly when all the chips were down, impressing both themselves and the general public watching the event. I really wanted to bask in the limelight of success and not be a mediocre, run-of-the-mill performer.

I convinced myself that those who can’t perform well don’t succeed in a society largely based on merit derived from delivering outstanding performances. After all, when was the last time a professional sports team put the guy notorious for choking in the game during a clutch situation? Never. What financial company would want a nervous stock trader on shift when millions of dollars are at stake? None. When it counts, you want the person that delivers. He or she who practices hard but performs poorly is of no help in these types of situations.

The other day I was surfing the web in an attempt to find some of my old college race results. While I was browsing each result page, I felt as if I was temporarily sent back in time to the day of the race. All of the anxiety, nervousness, and nausea that accompanied me during pre-race moments washed over me again. To my surprise, I was getting a nervous stomach looking at decade old results sitting in the comfort of my apartment completely alone, surrounded by four walls and nothing more!

The instant I started feeling nervous and nauseous I decided to close my web browser and leave the room in an attempt to relax. Unfortunately, this didn’t work. I even tried laying down for a nap. When I awoke 2 hours later, my nervous stomach persisted. Even more troubling, it lasted for the rest of the day and well into the evening. When I got up the next day, there it was again, following me around like a bad shadow. In total it took me almost 3 days to relax myself and my stomach again: all caused by looking at college track results and allowing myself to become nervous like I did more than 10 years ago before the races.

I realize this sounds absolutely crazy: who gets nervous like this more than 10 years after the fact, alone in the safety of their own home? Well I do, and it upsets me terribly.

Before I continue, I should state that I had a complete Endoscopy and Colonoscopy last summer due to a bad case of constipation. After the exam, the doctor reported nothing biologically abnormal. There were NO ulcers, tumors, or malformed stomach valves. When considering these facts, it’s absolutely clear that my stomachaches are triggered solely by my own mind. Why?

After the 3 day nervous stomach wore off, mostly due to ignoring it and focusing on other activities, I searched mental health help forums for others that suffered from “nervous stomachs”. In turns out that this phenomena is relatively common, though not as dramatic compared to my own experiences. Recommendations from others included focusing on other thoughts, eating meals more than 3 hours before races, inducing vomiting prior to performance, or taking anti-anxiety medications.

All of these solutions made sense. Still, I was bothered that I could get extremely nervous merely at the thought of running in a race, especially given the fact that I am physiologically normal.

Ultimately, I think the nervousness stems from a fear of disappointing myself and others. I remember wanting to succeed so desperately that I would end up putting tons of pressure on myself, making the experience of performing – in this case running a race – very negative and anxiety ridden. The same happened with music. Think about it: Yes, even Olympic athletes get pre-race jitters, but when the gun fires they are off running like cheetahs. They don’t have to run to the bathroom to urinate, pass diarrhea, or vomit. They rise to the occasion and perform superbly. Surely if an Olympic athlete can not put pressure on themselves during high stakes competitions, I should be able to relax in my own performance situations that are scores less competitive than the Olympic games.

It’s simple to think about but difficult to actually do, especially with years of nervousness, lack of confidence, and anxiety built up inside me. The forum poster who said “It’s only a race, relax and have fun” hit it right on the head. Competing should be fun and not approached as if you’ll be executed at the finish line unless you turn in a remarkable performance. Another person said “Go to the starting line confident in your training, you’re NOT facing a firing squad”. Again, this person is absolutely right on. If performing feels like a death march, you’ll never like performing and will hate the very thing that you love on practice days: a relaxed yet focused effort that yields results.

I urge all of you with “nervous stomachs” to relax and realize that you’re only nervous because you care – perhaps too much – about what you’re doing. A race or music recital isn’t necessarily a life changing event whether or not you perform well. Further, think ten years into the future and ask yourself if winning a race, perfectly executing a Bach concerto, or acing an important exam will really matter. Most likely it will not, therefore, don’t act like something will have such a profound impact on your future if it likely will not matter years later.

Good luck to all, and most importantly, enjoy performing in a relaxed manner! It takes practice but is a great skill to master!