The scientific reason you get nervous butterflies

Jade Biggs
·4-min read
Photo credit: Laurence Monneret
Photo credit: Laurence Monneret

From Cosmopolitan

Whether it’s a first date with a new prospect from Hinge or a second, alright, third driving test, we’re all familiar with the butterflies we get in our tummies when we’re feeling nervous. Just like the flush of pink that colours our cheeks when we’re embarrassed, nervous butterflies are what make us human, but why do we get them?

Experts say nervous butterflies are both a psychological and physical experience that can be traced back to our body’s evolutionary fight or flight instincts. This sensation causes us to respond to problems head on, or retreat to our place of safety. Back in the early days, this could be likened to a cavewoman taking on a hungry predator - will she hold her ground and fight, or take cover and wait it out?

But, a lot has changed since those days, and so has the way our fight or flight response is triggered. The hungry predator is no more, instead replaced by that interview for your dream job, an argument brewing with your bestie, or the moment you realise you’ve caught the feels.

"The nervous system helps prepare you for what it thinks is about to happen," explains Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK Insurance. "When you get nervous, your body can release adrenaline which will speed up your heart rate and redirect blood away from your stomach, and towards your arms and legs."

"The fluttering sensation you experience after feeling nervous is caused by the reduced blood flow to your stomach," Vandenabeele adds. "Our stomachs are particularly sensitive to emotions - anxiety, worry, sadness - so all these feelings can trigger symptoms in the gut."

So, now we know what causes those belly butterflies, what can we do to control them?

"A nervous stomach can be helped through lifestyle changes, such as practising mindfulness," recommends Vandenabeele. Mindfulness is an important tool to have in your arsenal when it comes to tackling symptoms of anxiety. Teamed with regular meditation, mindfulness can help to ground you in stressful situations, so try incorporating meditation apps like Headspace into your morning routine.

If meditation isn’t quite your thing, some also swear by sophrology, a form of 'dynamic meditation' that uses a combination of breathing techniques, movement, visualisation, and grounding. Finding a way to keep calm in stressful situations will go a long way in keeping nervous butterflies at bay.

Another great tactic is planning and preparation, says Vandenabeele. He suggests mapping out the day ahead to combat any unwanted flutters: "Keeping a calendar and noting down any urgent deadlines or important events can help you to stay calm. If you’re worried about something coming up, try to prepare as much as you can."

Most importantly, Vandenabeele reminds us that our "physical health is just as important as our mental health."

"Taking care of your body is the first step to taking care of your mind," he advises. "Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet full of a variety of fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly."

Essentially, looking after your body and planning your day with a digital calendar or physical diary can all help in limiting that nervous feeling, alongside meditation and other anxiety-reducing strategies. These could range from exercise or journaling, to seeing a therapist and experimenting with stress-reducing products such as weighted blankets. You might also find feelings of nervousness and anxiety are worse in the morning and can often peak further for many as we head into autumn and the longer, darker nights draw in - but, being clued up on the reasons why can help you prepare.

Putting these tactics into use might mean we won’t be running to the toilet before our next big date. But, would we really want to get rid of those nervous butterflies once and for all? Provided feelings of anxiety don’t get too severe, there’s something to be embraced about those familiar little flutters.

"Be mindful that anxiety can become a mental health problem if these feelings of nervousness, stress, irritability, or worry don’t go away," says Vandenabeele. If anxiety is affecting your everyday life, he suggests seeking support through free online resources such as Bupa or Mind, or speaking to your GP.

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