How Stress and Anxiety Cause Diarrhea

When stress goes to your stomach and gut

A wide variety of situations can cause diarrhea, including stress and anxiety. That's because of the physical changes that occur in your body when you are feeling stressed out.

This article explains why diarrhea may occur with anxiety and what strategies you can use to avoid this unpleasant and unwanted physical symptom.

Stress and anxiety cause diarrhea
Verywell / Joshua Seong 

Gut Reactions to Stress

Experiencing diarrhea when you are stressed is directly related to your body's programmed stress response. This response is called the "fight-or-flight" reaction.

What Is Fight-or-Flight?

The fight-or-flight reaction is an acute response to stress. When you experience this reaction, your body may feel a deep sense of anxiety and fear. These feelings result from the sympathetic nervous system responding to a perceived threat with increased heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and decreased digestion.

The fight-or-flight reaction did a great job in helping humans survive as a species, particularly back when people faced things like hungry lions. But this same reaction has become more troublesome in modern times.

When you come across something that you perceive as threatening, your body reacts with various physical changes, including digestive changes. For example, when your stress response is activated, your digestion slows so that your body can redirect resources elsewhere. As a result, you might experience gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, including diarrhea.

Recap

The fight-or-flight response causes changes in the body, including digestive changes. For example, slowed digestion from stress may result in GI symptoms, like diarrhea.

IBS and Diarrhea

People who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can readily attest to stress's effect 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. Doctors diagnose IBS according to specific criteria known as the Rome criteria.

Diagnosing IBS includes a physical exam and tests, which may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Fecal testing
  • Allergy testing
  • Imaging tests of the intestine or colon (like a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy)

If stress-related diarrhea only happens once in a while, you are likely having a natural stress reaction. However, if it happens pretty frequently, you should make an appointment with your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis, as other health conditions can cause you to experience diarrhea when under stress.

Recap

Sometimes, but not always, stress can trigger IBS. For example, if your diarrhea is frequent and recurrent, a doctor may want to confirm if IBS is the cause. Diagnosis may include blood tests, fecal testing, allergy testing, and imaging tests.

What Can You Do

You do not have to tolerate anxiety-triggered diarrhea. There are a variety of stress management techniques you can use to help your body become more resilient in its response to outside stressors.

If you are under significant stress a lot of the time, take an objective look at your life to see if you can make any changes to reduce your overall stress level. In addition, some day-to-day mindfulness habits may help.

Yoga and Meditation

Two activities that may reduce your body's baseline anxiety level are yoga and meditation. Regularly practicing one or both of these might help you deal more effectively with the stressful situations in your life.

Relaxation Techniques

There are also some relaxation techniques that you can use "on the spot" to help your body turn off the stress response. Doing so might quiet down your bowels, sparing you from further diarrhea episodes.

These techniques include:

Like all skills, these relaxation exercises are more effective when practiced regularly.

Psychotherapy

It may be helpful to initiate some psychotherapy to help you better manage the stresses and challenges that are contributing to your stress-induced diarrhea.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Even if you are relatively sure that stress is the culprit, you should discuss any unusual physical complaint with your healthcare provider. Doing so will help ensure that no other health condition is contributing to the problem.

Seek immediate medical attention if 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

Summary

Stress can sometimes lead to diarrhea. That's because part of the fight-or-flight response involves diverting energy from the digestive tract to elsewhere in the body. Sometimes, this can result in symptoms like diarrhea. In addition, IBS can sometimes cause stress-induced diarrhea, so if you experience diarrhea frequently, you should see a healthcare provider to confirm whether or not health conditions may be contributing.

A Word From Verywell

Diarrhea can be an inconvenient and embarrassing problem. But, there are some things you can do if you experience stress-induced diarrhea. Lowering your stress may be easier said than done, but things like yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, and psychotherapy can help. Also, if you have frequent bouts of stress-induced diarrhea, be sure to contact a healthcare provider to rule out other health conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can anxiety and stress cause vomiting?

    Yes, severe anxiety and stress can cause vomiting or lead to nausea. These are physical symptoms that are associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder. Stress can also lead to bloating and other stomach discomfort.

  • Can stress lead to constipation?

    Yes, stress can lead to constipation. The exact reason for this is not conclusive, but it is theorized that stress affects the brain-gut axis, which in turn changes gastrointestinal functions to cause constipation. The brain-gut axis is a communicative link between the brain and digestive system that allows for bodily information to be exchanged.

  • Are there diseases caused by stress?

    Yes, there are certain diseases that can be caused by severe stress. These include recurrent abdominal pain and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Similar to how the brain-gut axis can lead to constipation, it may have something to do with these diseases as well.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.