Butterflies in your stomach: the tantalizing tingle of like, love and lust
What butterflies in your stomach feel like...
Butterflies in your stomach can be one of the best feelings in the world, but, if it escalates, the excitement can turn on you and become a nervous jumble. The most common characteristic is a tightening in the stomach, the very feeling that gave the phrase its name – like a hundred little butterflies flapping around your stomach, almost nauseous, almost feverish, almost euphoric...
Your heartbeat is raised, feeling anxious, hopefully still excited, a buzzing in your ears, a dry mouth, you swallow to try and catch your breath - this is the elation and agony of the early stages in dating. Your crush becomes the focus of your attention and the rest of the world fades away, becomes blurred around the edges. This physical response is designed to give you a boost at the moments when you need to be at your sharpest, so the key is to harness these belligerent butterflies and make them work for you. George St-Pierre summed it up aptly, saying “it’s ok to get butterflies in your stomach: the key is to learn how to make them fly in formation”.
What are butterflies in your stomach actually?
So what is this immersive experience that we both love and loathe? How can it be both enchanting, and if the jitters become too jarring, disconcerting? Too few butterflies can indicate insufficient excitement to set off the neurological response of chemistry, but too many can spell the doom of blurting out inappropriate words, or worse, saying nothing at all, the silly mistakes that ensue when overcome by too much nervous energy. The explanation of these behaviors lies in your autonomic nervous system.
Going on a date and getting to know a new partner in the early phases of a relationship, when you are still relative strangers, is an evaluative experience. This means you are being assessed positively or negatively for your suitability, being weighed and measured by another individual. The possibility of rejection, of being found wanting, makes people nervous. This conscious and unconscious process can be stressful for even the most confident character. Putting yourself out there, while also evaluating your new potential partner, thus triggers the adrenal flight-or-fight response. And this is where the flutter of butterflies comes from.
As part of human’s evolutionary survival mechanisms, the body’s fight-or-flight response is automatically triggered when the brain perceives a threat. This response, governed by the autonomic nervous system, has in some ways become maladaptive in the modern world as it was designed to produce a set of reactions to heighten your physical response to a threat and help you survive. However, today the same response designed to save you from a saber tooth tiger is now activated by a suitable, sexy single!
On an innate level, when the brain identifies danger it does not always differentiate between a life-threatening emergency and a stressful, but much safer, first date. Designed above all else to make us survive, the brain’s radar is very sensitive to any perceived danger, even if that danger is rejection rather than ingestion by a predator! So as you answer that phone call, or lean in for the first kiss, the heart and head plunge you into a state of hyper-vigilance, the flight-or-fight response keeps your body primed to respond to the perceived threat.
The autonomic nervous system kicks off the sympathetic branch of your neuro-chemical reaction, releasing a cascade of adrenaline and cortisol into your body. The adrenaline makes your heart beat faster to pump your blood quicker, causes your liver to release a large dose of glucose and simultaneously directs the blood away from your stomach, each fulfilling a function of survival and increasing your alertness. Your blood is getting pumped faster and directed into your limbs, rather than your stomach, so you can run faster or be stronger to fight harder, the additional glucose providing a boost of extra energy for your defense.
As a result of the decreased flow of blood to your digestive system, the muscles in your stomach and intestine slow down, putting the brakes on digestion and reducing the amount of oxygen available to this area of the body. The shortage of blood can sometimes even cause nausea if the rush of adrenaline is sufficient to stop digestion. You start sweating more, the perspiration to cool you down after the physical exertion of your flight or fight. Your pupils dilate and you may even experience tunnel vision, all designed to help you see and perceive more. Constriction of blood vessels around the body to send surplus blood and oxygen to your muscles means you may also be experiencing a dry cottonmouth.
And this is what you are feeling when you feel the flutter of butterflies in your stomach, the racing heart and its accompanying symptoms. What "I have butterflies in my stomach" means simply is that there's a complex innate evolutionary reaction to a threat, perceived or real. The adrenaline response can make one euphoric, with the super senses of additional energy and perception, but if it tips beyond a certain point, the sharp alertness turns to anxiety and can turn even a suave Casanova into a blubbering fool.
This is why one may feel a similar reaction to a job interview, public speaking or first date – in each you are faced with the threat of evaluation and subsequent success or failure and rejection. The brain has not yet learned to differentiate between real danger and a safe stress, and so deals with both the same way, irrespective of the stressor.
So this evolutionary response of our survival instinct is why we get butterflies when we first fall in love, placing ourselves in the vulnerable position of another’s appraisal. In these moments, this is quite a normal response, however, should it persist or go beyond the early days of relationship formation, it can become maladaptive and turn into social anxiety, at which point it is advisable to reach out for professional help.