Here’s why bad news can make you feel physically sick
Why your body reacts to bad news: A psychologist explains the connection between your mind and your physical health.
When you discover something bad has happened, it can trigger your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response. This is your body's evolved response for coping with intense danger. At a neurobiological level, it's governed by what’s known as the sympathetic nervous system, which sends commands from your spinal cord to your body’s major organs, including your heart and intestines, gearing you up to either fight or flee when faced with danger.
A key part of the fight or flight response is to shut down digestion so that blood flow and energy can be sent to your limb muscles instead. In some people, this sudden effect on digestion can manifest as nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea. In short, the bad news has prompted you to feel threatened and your body has triggered your survival mode.
The sympathetic nervous system is in constant opposition with the parasympathetic nervous system, which is more active when we’re relaxed. It sends its own messages to your body, including encouraging digestion. So anything you can do to boost your parasympathetic nervous system activity ought to help you overcome those feelings of sickness.
This is easier said than done, but basic steps include deliberately slowing down your breathing. Consider writing a list of those aspects of the situation that are out of your control, and those that you can do something about. For those things you have some influence over, try to come up with some achievable plans to make the situation better. Over time, distraction, exercise and meditation can help you relax and cope with stress.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends and family – or seek professional support if the feelings of nausea won’t go away.
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Asked by: Amelia Montgomery, via email
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.