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Butterflies In Your Stomach: How and Why

By Olivia Harlow

“I’ve got butterflies in my stomach.” We all know the feeling: that infamous, nervous fluttering sensation before a work presentation, job interview, sports competition, first kiss, or final exam. It’s the strange combination of excitement, dread, stress, and fear—all stirring nausea in the pit of your stomach. But of course, these “butterflies” aren’t literal winged creatures flying around in your gut. It’s just your body’s chemical reaction to your mind’s thoughts and feelings.


Digestion Linked to Feelings

Interestingly enough, your digestive system is closely tied to your emotions. In fact, the gut holds an estimated 100 million neurons that link directly to the brain—hence why some scientific researchers call the gut a “second brain.” (Think: “Listen to your gut.”) So, when we’re experiencing overwhelming feelings, stomach sickness is inevitably common.


The human body acts involuntarily to defend itself all the time. Your heart beats without you commanding it. You breathe in and out, without thought. Your adrenaline naturally kicks in when a spider creeps across the floor or you hear a loud boom in the night. Your reflexes jolt when you touch something too hot or hit your funny bone against the table. Your heart rate and blood flow and nutrient distribution are all regulated, without your demand. This is all in thanks to the nervous system.


Butterflies in Flight, or Fight

The nervous system is in charge of “fight-or-flight” responses, as well as “rest-and-digest” reactions. While the sympathetic system (fight or flight) increases heart rate, the parasympathetic system (rest and digest) works to decrease it. At any normal moment, the two balance one another to maintain regularity. Any time your heart beat increase drastically, the sympathetic (fight or flight) is taking over the parasympathetic—heightening alertness, releasing higher levels of glucose, raising blood pressure, and stimulating adrenaline. This occurs whenever your brain perceives a potential threat to survival—AKA when you are in fear. It’s the body’s way of dialing into its caveman-like survival mode.


Evolutionary Response

Before cars and frozen meals and heated homes, people had to travel miles in strenuous conditions to hunt for food and care for their families. During hunter-gatherer times, people relied on fight or flight to survive—literally. While chasing prehistoric beasts with spears, increased heart rate and tense muscles gave hunters an edge. They could easily fight and take flight (escape) when in any sticky situation.


Of course a job interview isn’t life-threatening, and a first kiss isn’t going to destroy you. (Well, at least we hope not!) However, in modern times, the body’s chemical reaction to these situations is just the same as it would have been if a saber-tooth tiger were chasing you through Ice Age caverns. When you get the butterflies, it’s your nervous system at work, prepping your body for optimal performance, just as it would at any other point in history.


Belly Science

When we’re scared and overwhelmed with a situation at-hand, blood is redirected to other muscles of the body besides the gut. This results in a blood shortage in the intestines, and therefore a slower digestion. An intense adrenaline rush can even temporarily stop digestion altogether. This reduction of blood flow in the gut creates that infamously icky butterfly feeling, initiating survival mode.


Sure, you might not need extra adrenaline to run away from a stampede, but you might need them to stay upright presenting your job pitch to a large audience. And sure, you might not need an extra boost to shoot a bow and arrow at a savage wolf, but you might need it to talk to the cute guy at the bar. And sure, you might not need your heart rate to increase to charge ahead in a blizzard, but you might need it to step up to the starting line of your marathon… You get the point. Your body is simply a masterpiece at work, doing unfathomable things without our instruction—or even our understanding!


(Crazy fact: If you saw a loved one get smashed beneath a car–yes a morbid thought—you’d get such intense fight or flight adrenaline, that you could literally lift the multi-ton car off of them! Talk about some Neanderthal instincts!)


Next time you find yourself with pre-stage/first date/pre-race jitters, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that everything’s OK. Trust your body, and listen to your gut—literally. Nerves aren’t always a bad thing, after all. They just mean that you’re ready to beat up a mountain lion and take on the world! (And hey, at least you aren’t actually being chased by a mountain lion, right?)

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