What It Really Means When You Have Butterflies In Your Stomach

We all know the feeling. Maybe you're standing alone on a stage, or maybe you notice a certain attractive someone staring at you from across the room. Suddenly, that all too familiar feeling in the pit of your stomach arises. You may feel uneasy, dizzy, or slightly nauseous, and right away you know you've got a case of "the butterflies." The idea of "butterflies in your stomach" may initially sound like nothing more than a poetic metaphor suitable for a high school English class, but in reality, there's actually a biological reason our bodies go through this uncomfortable process — and it all has to do with protection.

According to Bradley Elliott, Lecturer in Physiology at the University of Westminster, the source of the "butterflies" can be traced back to the body's autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is composed of two different parts (via Discover Magazine). The first part is the sympathetic nervous system, which many of us probably remember as the "fight-or-flight" response from science class. The sympathetic nervous system is what increases our heart rate. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system, perhaps more commonly remembered as the "rest-and-digest" function, is responsible for slowing our heart rate down. Think back to the last time you had a big meal. That full, sleepy feeling you experienced afterward was your parasympathetic nervous system at work.

So what causes the butterflies?

Alternatively, when your body senses a potential threat, it's your sympathetic nervous system that takes over. Historically, this involuntary body function has served an important purpose. Throughout time, a threat could range from anything from a large animal, to a stranger, to an unfamiliar sound. According to The Times-Delphic, when a potential threat is detected, the sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline throughout the body, which gives us enough energy to either flee or face the situation. In order to create this energy, the body will reroute blood flow away from other areas — one of these areas being the stomach. This rerouting process slows down digestion and relaxes certain muscles in the gut. The "butterflies" we experience are a result of our stomach signaling this loss of blood and oxygen to the body.

Though the sensation of butterflies in your stomach may not always be the most pleasant of experiences, it's your body's way of looking out for you. The threat may not be a large animal, but sometimes something unfamiliar like the first day at a new school or going out on a first date can be enough to send those butterflies into a frenzy. Sometimes we just have to remind our stomachs that the unfamiliar isn't always dangerous, but that it can be fun and exciting too.