How Stress and Anxiety Cause Diarrhea

When stress goes to your stomach and gut

Although a wide variety of health conditions have diarrhea as a symptom, sometimes the cause can be attributed simply to stress or anxiety. You experience diarrhea symptoms when you are not sick, but instead are just "stressed out." It can be helpful to learn why this happens and what strategies you can use to avoid this unpleasant, and certainly unwanted, physical symptom.

Stress and anxiety cause diarrhea
Verywell / Joshua Seong 

Gut Reactions to Stress

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.

The fight-or-flight reaction did a great job in helping humans to survive as a species, particularly back when they were often 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.

Deciphering Whether or Not It's 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 healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis, as there are other health conditions that can cause you to experience diarrhea when under stress.

If your stress-related diarrhea only happens once in a while, it is unlikely that anything is going on other than the natural stress reaction. But you may still want to take measures to reduce its impact when bouts strike.

What Can You Do

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 visualization, deep 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 Healthcare Provider

Even if you are fairly certain that stress is the culprit, you should discuss any unusual physical complaint with your healthcare provider 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
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Article Sources
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