Butterflies in the Stomach: What Happens to the Body When Excited or Nervous?

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Butterflies in the Stomach: What Happens to the Body When Excited or Nervous?

There is no one who is unfamiliar with the feeling, an ongoing agitation in the stomach when excited, nervous, anxious or in love. What happens to our bodies when we have "butterflies in the stomach"?

It occurs before an exam or an important event and when we fall in love. The excitement causes the heart rate to accelerate and we feel something inside which has become known as a feeling of "butterflies". These butterflies only serve to worry us more and may cause one to wonder what is going on inside. Well, quite a bit, actually.

If we take a step back to the preceding moment we may understand some of what occurs deep inside. It all begins from the ancient principle called "fight or flight" which characterises the nervous system.

The first researcher to describe this phenomenon was Walter Bradford Cannon in 1929. His theory maintained that animals react to threat via the sympathetic nervous system.

This is part of the nervous system which operates automatically and over which one has no control. When we are calm, the sympathetic nervous system operates in "low gear." However, when faced with danger, anxiety or excitement, the brain transmits electrical impulses to activate the system at its full capacity.

As a result of this activation substances called epinephrine (better known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are released from the adrenal glands. The release of these substances is mediated by the release of an additional substance called acetylcholine. This system is complex and quite complicated and we will not bore you with detailed explanations.

The important thing is the result of this activation - acceleration of the heart rate and lung activity, hindrance to digestive activity, contraction of blood vessels in various parts of the body in order to allow more blood to flow to the muscles, hindrance of secretion from the tear and saliva glands (thus the dry feeling when excited), dilation of the pupils, relaxation of the bladder and hindrance of erection.

The central idea around which the body operates in times of duress is a decrease in blood flow to the less important limbs and transmission of oxygen-rich blood to the more essential limbs.

That is precisely what causes those butterflies in the stomach. They reflect the decreased blood flow to the digestive system. All of the digestive processes are slowed, the stomach contracts and the typical activity of the intestines (peristaltic activity, in medical jargon), decreases as well. So what is the solution? The answer is to simply relax; there is no medication to treat this phenomenon.