Columbia University Medical Center

Graduation Butterflies: All in Your Head or in Your Stomach?

graduation-capJust before a confident valedictorian delivers his well-prepared graduation speech, an unwelcome stirring arrives in his gut without warning. In the audience, a medical student, about to step on stage to receive her diploma, feels a similar flutter. While graduation is a time of celebration, it’s also a time when students face the unknown. So what exactly are these “butterflies,” flapping their wings in the guts of graduates far and wide?

THE SECOND BRAIN

Columbia University Professor Michael Gershon calls the stomach a “second brain” because it can operate without any input from the brain or spinal cord. His research focuses on the connections between the brain and the digestive system.

“[The gut] is not a second brain in the sense that it deals with religion, philosophy, or politics,” Dr. Gershon says. “It leaves that to the brain in the head. But it deals with the messy, dirty business of digestion.”

Ideally, the gut and the brain have a working relationship that’s active yet so quiet the communication does not reach our consciousness. Dr. Gershon describes the well-performing brain as a “benevelent CEO” that does not micromanage, but instead simply signals when the stomach needs to do more or less. In turn, the stomach should be the kind of worker that doesn’t disrupt the boss.

“The gut is not an organ from which you wish to receive frequent progress reports,” he says. “You want the enteric nervous system to function in the deep background.”

THAT BUTTERFLY FEELING

What’s happening when the butterflies arrive, Dr. Gershon says, is simply anxiety. The once benevolent CEO brain turns into an overbearing CEO, kicking the stomach into high gear, telling it to act more, secrete more.

“And because pressure is increased in the gut, sensory nerves in the gut send signals of discomfort back to the brain. This may cause frequent bowel movements or just queasiness in the stomach, but that’s the sensation,” Dr. Gerson explains. “Physically the gut is pressing and twisting and just tying itself into knots, essentially, too strongly. And that sends signals back to the brain, too strongly.”

Feeling butterflies in your stomach is completely normal—especially during times of transition like graduating or starting a new job.

The most crucial step in chasing them away is to recognize them for what they are: anxiety. Once you have recognized the problem, Dr. Gershon advises analyzing what the cause may be and then, if the problem persists, considering getting help to ease the symptoms.

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