Have you ever wondered why zebras don't get ulcers? I honestly have never wondered this and have never really thought much about zebras before. And before this past year, I never thought much about how anxiety can manifest into physical symptoms. But after the last year I had, ulcers and all, it was clearly time for me to start thinking about it. My therapist encouraged me to read the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky to better understand how stress can physically affect your body. I’m really excited about this book and what I’ve learned so far, so I’m going to start a new series where I dive into a few topics from this book throughout the next few months and share what I am learning. Quite honestly, I do not think enough people know how anxiety can be more than just what is happening in your brain. It can affect every area of your body.
So let’s kick this off with ulcers. According to this book, this was really the first medical problem that started the conversation about anxiety’s effects on your body. You might be wondering, “what exactly is an ulcer?” Great question. It is a hole in the wall of your stomach. There are ulcers that can form in other areas of your body too but I’m only going to focus on the kind that I had. Clearly I am not a doctor but a hole in any organ doesn’t sound good, right? There are some ulcers that are formed by bacteria so even if you live a stress free life you still might be lucky enough to be diagnosed with one someday. But this wasn’t the case for my ulcer. I was going through the most stressful time of my life which made my body decide it was time to do something dramatic. Something to force me to stop and realize the effect stress was having on not only my mind but on my body as well.
I’ve always been told that stress causes your body to create more acid which then leads to an ulcer. But I’m learning from this book that it’s actually the opposite. More stress equals less acid. So during extremely stressful situations your stomach decides to say, “hey, let me take a break” and starts cutting corners. Basically what happens is since there isn’t much acid, your stomach cuts back on making your lining really strong which will eventually leave you vulnerable to other issues, like an ulcer. Which is exactly what happened to me.
So how did I know I had an ulcer? Like many people, whenever I start to feel any symptom pop up I turn to Google. I started feeling nauseous all the time and had what felt like a fire in my stomach. It was a burning sensation that I couldn’t really describe. I typed all this information into Web MD and it kept coming back as symptoms of an ulcer. Whenever I’ve used Web MD in the past, I’ve gone down dark rabbit holes that led me to issues and symptoms I wasn’t even experiencing. But this was the one time my research actually paid off and helped inform me to advocate for what I believed was happening in my body. Which is a huge lesson I’ve learned over the past year. You are your body’s biggest advocate.
My ulcer formed a couple months after my breakup which made me question the timing and wonder why it was all of a sudden hitting me at once. I was out of the storm. Why was I starting to feel even worse? But since reading this book, it now makes perfect sense. It’s like I was a cartoon character and the light bulb finally went off in my head. Stress related ulcers are formed not so much during the stressful situation but more likely during the recovery. Since your body is cutting corners during stressful periods it isn’t prepared to handle when you acid levels return to normal during non-stressful times. This creates the perfect opportunity for an ulcer to form. Reading this has helped me better understand my body and how stress was affecting it even after the storm had cleared.
It is really crazy how our bodies work and process all the outside factors of our life. As someone who has struggled with anxiety for a long time, I was totally unaware of the bigger impact it can have on my body. After learning about ulcers and anxiety in general, I am becoming more aware of how I am physically feeling when anxiety is present. Listen to your body and trust your gut when something feels wrong. I can’t begin to tell you how many doctor appointments I’ve gone to before getting to the bottom of how I was feeling. So trust the feelings that you are having. And if you are curious about what other ways anxiety and stress can affect your body, stay tuned for a future post because I am learning so much from this book and I can't wait to share.
Click here if you want to buy Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers