Butterflies in my tummy: I clicked send

This week was a very busy week. I had a test, a bunch of homework, but what caused me the most stress was my dreaded UCAS application for medical school. I have enjoyed the last 2 years of my life attending conferences about medicine, studying for the grades and doing things that would enhance my application for medical school, but all of a sudden, it all seemed too real. All of that hard work for an online form. I have spent the last 5 months agonising over my personal statement. It is a torturous process, and whenever I had to delete something, it was like taking a knife to my soul. Then my choice of medical school: that was another long conversation. For a while, it seemed like it was all that my family and I could talk about! All of the Saturdays given to open days, all of the complaints from my sister when she was informed that she would have to wake up at 6 am at the weekend so that we could go to some odd corner of the country to visit a university: all of these thoughts were jumbled up in my head. But amongst the chaos during the week, and the chaos inside my head, there were a number of recurring questions I kept having: What if I get no interviews? Even if I get an interview, what if I don’t get any offers? Even if I get an offer, what if I don’t make the grades? Even if I make the grades, what if I hate my university? What if I hate being a medical student? What kind of a doctor would that make me if I hate my job from day 1? The butterflies in my tummy were causing a ruckus when I finally just closed my eyes and clicked the red send button.

Butterflies in the stomach is a sensation you will probably also be familiar with: when we feel anxious, or nervous it feels like a tingling sensation in your tummy. You may even feel nauseated. Well, it turns out that science has an explanation for these butterflies too! Our mood is very much dependent on our stomach, as our digestive system is closely linked to our central nervous system [1]. Stomach butterflies actually form part of our instinctive fight-or-flight response: a defensive cascade of events that our brain sets off when it detects a threat to our survival. This cascade of events may include an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate (which is often also why people with panic disorder begin to hyperventilate during a panic attack) [2]. The nervous system simultaneously sends signals to the adrenal gland so it can secrete the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which causes the body to become tense and sweaty. The muscle tension caused by the spike in cortisol [3] leads to extra sensitivity in the smooth muscles of the stomach. This added sensitivity is believed to be partly responsible for the sensation of butterflies.

The brain and stomach are in fact so closely related that some researchers refer to the stomach as a ‘second brain’ due to the discovery of the fact that the stomach contains a whopping 100 million neurons linking it to the Brain (which is known as the ‘brain-gut axis’) [4]. Nausea caused by butterflies happens because the adrenaline rush temporarily causes digestion to stop. This is part of the fight-or-flight response because blood leaves the places the brain thinks it is not needed: blood will leave the stomach and go to the legs and arms so it can provide the power for you to run away from the threat. [5] [6]

The fight-or-flight response was very prominent when our ancestors (cavemen and the like) were living in the age where they would get hunted by tigers and bears etc. Today, we get this sensation of butterflies in many different situations. Most commonly, it is in times when we feel nervous e.g. before a presentation or an interview. However, you might also have heard (or felt) butterflies in the stomach when you are in love or talking to a crush! Each of these different scenarios can elicit a fight-or-flight response which is slightly altered to another because different neurochemicals and hormones are being released. It’s kind of funny to think that in the past, my fight-or-flight response would have been activated by me being chased down by a literal tiger, but today it was activated when I saw a computer screen with UCAS’s logo on it!

These butterflies cause all the problems. They flutter around and distract me from remembering the things I need to remember. In this case, they distracted me from remembering how much fun I have actually had during this whole application process. All the friends I have made and the knowledge I have gained. I have genuinely enjoyed all of the conferences I attended, and even if I don’t get into medicine this time round, I can confidently say that I have at least grown as a person—which will only make me better prepared for the next application round!

[1] https://www.naturopathiccurrents.com/articles/probiotics-gut-brain-axis

[2] https://www.verywellmind.com/the-fight-or-flight-theory-of-panic-disorder-2583916

[3] http://www.stresshack.com/cortisol-and-stress.html

[4] https://psychscenehub.com/psychinsights/the-simplified-guide-to-the-gut-brain-axis/

[5] https://greatist.com/happiness/why-do-i-get-butterflies-my-stomach

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/23/science/complex-and-hidden-brain-in-gut-makes-stomachaches-and-butterflies.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

By Muskaan Jonathan

Relationship between Mood and Gut Bacteria

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