Stress and anxiety are known for their impacts on mental health, but they can also affect you physically, particularly in the digestive system.
Feeling anxious about something and suddenly feel nauseous? Or perhaps you’ve been working through a lot of stress lately and just don’t have an appetite?
Gastrointestinal symptoms like these sometimes go hand-in-hand with stress and anxiety.
You might even notice changes in more unexpected places — like the bathroom.
Yes, stress or anxiety can cause diarrhea.
Your body is a complex network of systems all working together, and when one is experiencing distress, it’s natural for symptoms to appear in other places as well.
In fact, a
Your body may be comprised of different working parts, but all those parts come together as a whole.
Your brain is responsible for these systems and their interactions.
If you’re cold, for example, your brain can tell your muscular system to start shivering. It can also increase circulation to your internal organs, away from your extremities. The goal is to raise your body temperature because your brain wants your body to survive.
Another survival feature of your body is its response to stress.
Stress is your body’s reaction to mental or physical challenges. It triggers survival responses in a number of internal systems, increases heart rate and respirations, and produces hormones like cortisol.
The stress response also triggers reactions in the enteric nervous system — the network of nerve microcircuits that control your gastrointestinal function. Stress response can alter how quickly food moves through your digestive tract and how nutrients are absorbed. For some people, this can cause diarrhea. For others, it can cause constipation.
Stress may also negatively impact the intestinal microbiome, suggests
When this layer of naturally occurring, beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract becomes unbalanced from stress inflammation, diarrhea is a common side effect.
The link between diarrhea and your body’s stress response may be clear, but where does anxiety fit in?
Stress and anxiety aren’t the same. Stress is typically caused by external stimuli, like an immediate threat or a looming work deadline.
Anxiety is a reaction to stress, but it can persist even in the absence of a stress trigger.
When you live with anxiety, for example, you may feel its effects and not be able to pinpoint any single thing that might be causing them.
Both stress and anxiety create similar physiological responses in the body. Anxiety, even in the absence of an immediate stimulus, is a cue to the body that your brain says it’s not safe.
There are many different causes of diarrhea, and they can range from a meal of spicy food to more serious medical conditions like Crohn’s disease.
Speaking with a healthcare professional when you’re experiencing diarrhea can help you rule out other potential causes beyond anxiety and stress.
If your diarrhea symptoms have been linked to stress and anxiety, you may be prescribed medications to help alleviate your gastrointestinal symptoms as well as any mental health symptoms you’re experiencing.
Psychotherapy is a tool that may help address the underlying cause of stress and anxiety, and in turn improve physical symptoms like diarrhea.
Other ways to help manage diarrhea from stress and anxiety include:
Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and other relaxation techniques may help improve symptoms of stress or anxiety.
Probiotics, and any over-the-counter supplements, may not be suitable for everyone. A healthcare or mental health professional can help you determine if probiotic use is safe and effective for you.
Identifying stressors can help you learn to notice and avoid them. By writing down your experiences in a journal, you can help see patterns that may align with bouts of diarrhea.
Taking care of your digestive tract
If diarrhea has been a challenge, avoiding foods that may aggravate your symptoms can help.
Common foods to avoid include:
- caffeinated beverages
- fried foods
- greasy foods
- carbonated drinks
- gas-promoting vegetables (such as broccoli, peppers, peas, corn, chickpeas)
- dairy products
Drinking plenty of water
Drinking more water won’t make your diarrhea worse. By keeping on top of your water intake, you can help prevent dehydration from the excess water being eliminated by your intestines.
If diarrhea is particularly severe, an electrolyte drink may be recommended to help replenish your fluids and electrolytes levels.
Staying in touch with a healthcare or mental health professional can be important when treating diarrhea and anxiety or stress.
Not every diarrhea treatment can be used in every situation, and taking supplements or making dietary changes without consulting a doctor may cause unintended consequences.
Diarrhea is one of those symptoms that happens to almost everyone for one reason or another.
You may want to consult a healthcare professional, however, if your diarrhea:
- doesn’t improve after a few days
- has an unusual odor or color
- is accompanied by pain
- presents with blood or mucus
- coincides with fever, vomiting, or other signs of illness
- is negatively impacting daily activities
Diarrhea is one of the potential side effects of stress and anxiety.
When your body is in survival mode, all systems offer a response — including your gastrointestinal system.
You don’t have to wait for symptoms of diarrhea to emerge before you speak with a mental health professional about stress and anxiety, however.
If you’re starting to feel as though these feelings are affecting your day-to-day life, a mental health professional can help you explore what you’re experiencing before physical symptoms become more intrusive.