How Stress and Anxiety Cause Diarrhea

When Stress Goes to Your Stomach and Gut

Woman with Stomach Ache
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Although there are a wide variety of health conditions that have diarrhea as a symptom, sometimes the cause of diarrhea can be attributed simply to stress or anxiety. If this happens to you—that is, you experience diarrhea symptoms when you are not sick, but instead are just "stressed out"—it would be helpful to learn why this happens and what strategies you can use to avoid this unpleasant, and certainly unwanted, physical symptom.

Why Do Stress and Anxiety Cause Diarrhea?

The reason that you can experience diarrhea when you are stressed is directly related to your body's programmed stress response, what is commonly referred to as our "fight-or-flight" reaction. This reaction did a great job in helping us to survive as a species, particularly back when we were faced with things like hungry lions. But this same reaction has become more troublesome in light of the challenges you are faced with, and the fast pace of, modern life.

When you come across something that you perceive as threatening, your body reacts with a variety of physical changes: heart rate and respiration increase, your muscles tense up, blood is directed toward your extremities, and most relevant to the current discussion, your colon contractions speed up. In some cases, this increase in colon activity can result in the symptom of diarrhea.

Is This IBS?

People who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can readily attest to the effect that stress has on their digestive system.

However, it is possible to also experience stress-triggered diarrhea without having IBS. IBS is a syndrome that involves recurrent bouts of abdominal pain and significant and ongoing problems with diarrhea or constipation. A diagnosis of IBS is made according to specific criteria known as the Rome criteria.

If your stress-related diarrhea happens quite frequently, you should make an appointment with your doctor for a proper diagnosis, as there are other health conditions that can cause you to experience diarrhea when under stress. But, if your stress-related diarrhea only happens once in a while, it is unlikely that anything else is going on.

What Can You Do About This?

You do not have to be a passive victim of anxiety-triggered diarrhea. There are a variety of stress management techniques that you can use to help your body to become more resilient in its response to outside stressors. Two activities that have been associated with reducing your body's baseline anxiety level are yoga and meditation. Practicing one or both of these on a regular basis will help you to deal more effectively with the stressful situations in your life that arise.

There are also some relaxation techniques that you can use "on the spot" to help your body to turn off the stress response and thus hopefully quiet down your bowels, sparing you from further diarrhea episodes. These include visualizationdeep breathing exercises, and muscle relaxation exercises. Like all skills, these relaxation exercises are more effective when they are practiced on a regular basis.

If you are under a lot of stress a lot of the time, it is also important to take an objective look at your life to see if changes can be made to reduce your overall stress level. Problem-solving and assertiveness skills can be utilized to make your life more comfortable. It may be helpful to initiate some psychotherapy to help you to better manage the stresses and challenges that are contributing to your stress-induced diarrhea.

When to See a Medical Doctor

Even if you are fairly certain that stress is the culprit, you should discuss any unusual physical complaint with your doctor to ensure that no other disease process is present and contributing to the problem.

You should seek immediate medical attention should you experience any of the following:

  • Blood in stools or any sign of rectal bleeding
  • Dehydration
  • Fever over 102 F or fever that lasts more than three days
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Severe abdominal pain

Sources:

Chang L. The Role of Stress on Physiologic Responses and Clinical Symptoms in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Gastroenterology. 2011;140(3). doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2011.01.032.

Diarrhea. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/diarrhea.

 

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