Can Stress or Anxiety Cause Diarrhea?
Diarrhea is an uncomfortable and embarrassing problem that can have a variety of causes, but many people don’t realize that stress or anxiety may be to blame. Unexpected bouts of diarrhea can be a symptom of serious stress or anxiety, so it’s important to understand the cause and seek help to manage these.
In this article, we’ll look at how stress or anxiety can cause diarrhea and what you can do to prevent it by addressing the root cause.
Can Stress or Anxiety Cause Diarrhea?
When experiencing stressful or anxious events, it is normal for the body to experience physical symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, and constipation. This is due to the release of chemical messengers from the brain that signals your gut – an effect known as the “brain-gut connection”.
Also, a fight-or-flight response can be triggered by stress or anxiety, causing the body to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones or other stress hormones can affect the activity of our gut muscles and speed up digestion, leading to severe or persistent diarrhea.
Who’s at Risk for Stress-Induced Diarrhea
Anyone can experience stress-induced diarrhea, but people who are more prone to stress and anxiety may be at a higher risk. People with chronic conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may also be more prone to experiencing symptoms of stress-induced chronic diarrhea.
How Do Stress and Anxiety Affect the Gut?
When our bodies sense a threat, they go into automatic overdrive. Our sympathetic central nervous system triggers the “fight-or-flight” response, an instantaneous physiological reaction designed to protect us from danger. This can lead to uncomfortable side effects.
Stress affects the gut in different ways. It can cause stomach contents to remain in the body longer and move through the intestines quicker, resulting in abdominal pain and changes to bowel movements. It can also reduce a person’s pain threshold, leading to cramping or discomfort during stressful situations. Additionally, it increases gut motility and fluid secretion, which explains why some people might experience diarrhea or increased urges to urinate before, during, or after a stressful event.
It’s no surprise since the body’s “fight-or-flight” response will divert energy away from one area – like the digestive tract – to another that needs it more urgently at the time. That could mean cramping and urgent trips to the bathroom become a regular occurrence.
Because our bodies are hard-wired to go into survival mode when faced with stress. This “fight-or-flight” reaction can be a double-edged sword in the modern world. While it helped our ancestors survive in times of extreme danger, it’s not always so useful when we’re dealing with more chronic sources of stress, like work deadlines and family dramas, which can trigger diarrhea.
What is the Connection Between Our Gut and Our Mind?
Your gut and mind are intricately linked, forming a complex network of communication. Referred to as the ‘gut-brain axis’, this relationship involves millions of sensory neurons that run between these two organs.
Powerful neurotransmitters and other chemicals produced by your gut have direct effects on your brain too. It’s an amazing system that keeps our digestive health in check and puts us one step ahead of any problems that may arise.
How to Manage Stress and Find Relief from Stress-Related Diarrhea
If you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed by the everyday stressors in your life and suspect this could be the culprit behind your bouts of diarrhea, you can find long-term relief by getting to the root cause of your stress or anxiety.
Get To the Root Cause
To get to the root of anxiety or stress-related digestive problems, it’s important to know how your nervous system responds to different situations. Too often we overlook this underlying cause, choosing instead to just treat the physical symptoms.
Did you know that a dysregulated nervous system has a profound impact on most of the functions in your body, including heart rate, breathing, and digestion?
Identifying Your Stress Triggers: A Dysregulated Nervous System
Identifying the causes of your stress-related ailments can be tricky, but it’s well worth the effort. Understanding what triggers your stress or anxiety can be the key to taking control of your GI issues. This is where the nervous system comes in.
It is important to understand that our body is incredibly intelligent and is built to deal with everyday external stressors and triggers using our autonomic nervous system.
A regulated nervous system is able to move flexibly between different states of arousal in response to stressors. This means that when we encounter a change in our environment, like a stressful situation, we can adapt so that we are not overwhelmed. It also means we completely recover after the stressor has been removed.
However, when our nervous systems become dysregulated, we feel we have no control over how we respond to triggers, and we remain stuck in that response even after the trigger is removed.
Chronic stress and anxiety, and the physical symptoms you are experiencing as a result, all stem from an overwhelmed, dysregulated nervous system.
Thankfully, there are ways to regulate your nervous system and reduce these physical effects of stress and anxiety – and this is exactly what we teach here at Heal Your Nervous System.
From mild to chronic, stress-induced diarrhea is no laughing matter – yet it’s an all-too-common problem. If your digestion woes have been around for some time, it’s time to take matters into your own hands and address the underlying issue of your anxiety or stress – a dysregulated nervous system.
Building a regulated nervous system and healing from your physical symptoms is totally possible with the right structure and support.
If you’d like to start this journey of building a flexible, thriving nervous system, The Nervous System Solution, our signature program to regulate and heal a sensitive nervous system, will reopen doors soon. Make sure you don’t miss that window of opportunity by joining the waitlist here. 🧬
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does stress-induced diarrhea last?
The duration of diarrhea that we face due to anxiety can vary depending on the severity of our stress and how we are able to manage it. Generally, anxiety diarrhea should start to improve within two after the onset if managed properly.
What color is your poop when you have anxiety?
Typically, people with anxiety may see changes in stool color to dark yellow, as well as increased urgency and frequency.
What foods can I eat to calm my digestive system?
Foods that are said to help soothe the digestive system include bananas, oats, applesauce, rice, potatoes, and lean proteins such as fish or chicken. Eating probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut may also help keep your gut healthy and reduce stress/anxiety levels. Additionally, avoiding spicy or fatty foods can also help reduce digestive distress.
When should I see a doctor?
Nervous system regulation is an effective way to manage stress-related diarrhea, but if your symptoms persist or worsen, it’s important to seek medical help. Your doctor can assess the underlying cause and provide you with a tailored treatment plan.
If you’re dealing with ongoing diarrhea that’s making life difficult, it’s time to seek medical attention. Ask your doctor for help if you notice:
● Blood or mucus present in the stool
● Floating stools
● Diarrhea keeping you up at night
● Unintentional weight loss
● Rectal bleeding
● Fever over 102 F or fever that lasts more than three days
Nervous System Regulation – Best Resources to Get Started
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Dr. Linnea Passaler
Dr. Linnea Passaler has dedicated 20+ years to serving patients, first to a small number of individuals as a successful surgeon and then to thousands of people worldwide as the CEO of a digital health startup. After overcoming her own struggles with a dysregulated nervous system, she created Heal Your Nervous System (HYNS) to empower others in their healing journey. Her combination of neuroscience and somatic work helps those struggling with overwhelm, trauma, burnout, and anxiety to heal their dysregulated nervous systems and thrive.