What Are Those Butterflies in Your Stomach?
That stomach clench at the sight of a crush, that fluttery feeling right before a job interview, or an electric zap at the flash of a lustful fantasy — they are all categorized as ‘butterflies in the stomach.’ Clearly, insects are not setting up camp in your gut. So, what exactly is going on down there?
Getting nervous, excited or sexually aroused all stem from the same belly-to-brain connection. It just depends on how you interpret the feeling, Dr. Daniel Amen, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, tells NBC. When a stimulus is encountered — be it a high-stakes job or a particularly attractive human — it activates the parts of the brain that process pleasure, mainly the basal ganglia of the cerebrum. These centers send a message down to the stomach through the vagus nerve, which activates the feeling in our gut.
It’s a feeling most often associated with lust, but scientists have found it can also be triggered by other feelings of motivation. Butterflies are determined by two systems: the brain’s salience network and the autonomous nervous system (ANS). The salience network is a huge collection of regions that determine which stimuli is worthy of our attention, according to the textbook Salience Network of the Human Brain. Once the network identifies the stimuli, it evaluates it and prepares an appropriate neural response. When we encounter a person we’re interested in romantically, for example, the network may trigger a neural jolt to the stomach, which could even result in the release of the ‘feel good’ hormone, dopamine.
The body’s dependable controlling authority, the ANS, which regulates our constant, involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, respiratory rate, sexual arousal and more also plays a role. It regulates our flight-or-fight response, essentially preparing us for whatever may be about to happen, according to Refinery 29. Major triggers for the ANS are fear and anxiety, which when stimulated result in an adrenaline rush and the release of stress hormone norepinephrine. As a result, the heart starts pumping blood to the extremities to prepare them for either flight or fight, leaving the gut devoid of blood, which can create a sensation that feels like a flutter.
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One explanation for the ANS kickstarting at the sight of a potential partner is that we associate vulnerability with being in a relationship, which can create an anxiety trigger, Jean Fitzpatrick, a NYC-based pre-marital and marital therapist, told Refinery 29. It doesn’t have to always be an ominous sign, Fitzpatrick adds, as each person should evaluate their butterflies as per the situation.
“The butterflies feeling is partially your body saying ‘I’m stressed but I’m motivated to do something or see this person again.’ It’s actually the same when you want to punch somebody in the face; the body interprets it in different ways,” Dr. Nicole Prause, psychophysiologist, told NBC.
We often interpret the feeling of butterflies fluttering, especially with regard to another human, as a sign of excitement and passion. Interestingly, these flutters have nothing to do with true love, which Dr. Nicole Gravagna, behavioralist and neuroscientist, tells NBC is a “well-being experience.” There is no space for nervousness or excitement in true love, which should be flutter free, she adds.
So, the next time you find yourself complaining that your significant other doesn’t incite butterflies in your stomach anymore, thank your stars. The lack of flutters means that you are finally comfortable enough around them not to feel anxious. You might just have left your cocoon.