Why You Get “Butterflies” In Your Stomach

By Howard J. Bennett

Imagine the following scenarios:

• It’s Monday morning and you’re worried because you have a math test in first period.

• It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re getting ready to do a piano recital for your parents and lots of other people.

• A girl or boy you like is nearby and you want to say something, but you don’t know what to say.

In each situation, you have an uncomfortable or fluttery feeling in your stomach. You might also feel queasy and worry that you’re going to throw up. If you pay attention to the rest of your body, you may notice that your heart is beating faster, your mouth is dry and your hands are damp and a little shaky.

This situation has happened to every human at one time or another. The experience is referred to as having “butterflies in your stomach.” What’s really going on, however, is that you are having a reaction to stress.

When people are stressed, it can elicit something called the “fight or flight” response. Let’s pretend you came upon a lion on the African savannah. In a split second you know you are in a dangerous situation. Fortunately, the human body is prepared to deal with this. Signals travel from the thinking part of your brain to the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which are responsible for controlling many functions within the body. The pituitary gland instantly signals the adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands release adrenaline and other chemicals into your blood stream. Adrenaline causes rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure and improved circulation in your muscles. All of those effects are designed to help you fight the lion or run away. (I recommend the latter.)

At the same time that blood is flowing to your lungs and muscles, less of it is reaching other organs including your intestinal tract. This and other hormonal changes may cause nausea or the feeling that you have a “knot” in your stomach. (Even though you are unlikely to ever encounter a lion, a milder version of the same process can “kick in” if you face other stressful situations.)

So the next time you are nervous before taking a test, remember that it is the fight or flight response that’s making you feel this way. In this case, however, I recommend that you take the test instead of running away.


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 5/10/10.)

For more KidsPost articles and lots of other cool stuff,
please visit Dr. B’s website at  www.howardjbennett.com.