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Stomach Tied Up in Knots? That's a Very Good Sign

Your body's stomach-churning response to stress might just be a sign that you're doing something right.
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Two words come to mind when RadioLab host Jad Abumrad thinks about the shaky beginnings of his public radio show: "gut churn." 

During a humorous podcast recently posted to 99U, Abumrad reflected on why he, and humans in general, tend to have a such strong physical response to risk-taking

Abumrad's 11-year-old show, which now airs on on more than 450 NPR member stations, reports on science, philosophy, and human experience. So it was appropriate that Abumrad explored the physiology behind the sick-to-the-stomach feeling. 

But first, he asked his co-creator Michael Elsesser why he also had this physical manifestation of anxiety during the early days.

"I remember sitting at my desk for a long stretch of time just kind of rubbing my head and pushing on my temples just because my head just hurt," Elsesser said laughing.

Sobering a bit, he continued, "I couldn't find a way to describe what we were doing with it in a way that anybody could call rational and linear. Some day somebody was going to ask us what was going on. What's the long term plan for this, and how are we going to pay for it? And it was a long time before we were able to answer those questions." 

Those Knots Are Good for You

Abumrad explained that gut churn is an ancient physiological response. Back when our ancestors were living amongst their predators, the body adapted in order to enable the best chance for escape. So in response to life-threatening situations, non-essential systems shut down--including digestion, according to biologist Robert Sapolsky.

"This is the stomach ceasing to function because the body is saying to itself right now, 'We have to run for our lives,'" Abumrad said. And though he admitted it sounds dramatic, producing his show in the early days always felt like a life or death situation. 

And yet, as unpleasant as it is when your stomach feels like it's tied up in knots, it could be an indication that you're on to something. 

"Milton Erickson, the great psychologist had this notion that you could take the worst feeling in the world--the worst--and you can reframe it, and suddenly that feeling becomes the solution." Looking at it that way, gut churn is your body's way of telling that you that you need to keep moving.

"Like OK, I feel like my stomach's about to explode, but maybe that just means I'm on the right track. Maybe that just means I'm doing my job," Abumrad said. 

Last updated: Aug 26, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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