The Truth About Anxiety, Stress and Diarrhea

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Do you often have gastrointestinal issues or stomach upsets before a job interview, a first date, after a confrontation with a loved one, or even when undergoing financial difficulties?

If so, then you are not alone–some people experience this regularly and even anticipate the gastrointestinal problems before before it even happens. The digestive system is susceptible to your overall emotions and state of mind as it is full of nerves just like the brain.

Stress and anxiety can affect the functioning of the gut and cause diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

In most instances, it may be impossible to avoid events and situations that cause emotional distress and anxiety. Luckily, there are several ways to manage diarrhea and other digestive disorders during a stressful period.

Read on for more information on the relationship between stress, anxiety, and diarrhea, and actionable solutions that can remedy the problem.

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What is Stress Diarrhea?

Stress can refer to physiological or psychological distress, but most people associate the word with emotional and mental strain.

Diarrhea is an alteration of the bowel habit where one passes watery stool more than three times a day. Psychological stress can cause disturbances in the functioning of the body’s systems, and part of this includes gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea.

Most of the time, the diarrhea is acute, meaning that it lasts only for a short period.

It is critical to note that diarrhea may not always be associated with psychological stress. Acute diarrhea can also be caused by other factors such as the following:

  • A virus such as a rotavirus
  • Bacteria that cause food poisonings such as E. coli and Salmonella
  • Damage to the intestinal lining
  • Parasites
  • Food allergies
  • Intake of certain antibiotics, antacids, NSAIDs, and laxative
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol

Watch out for diarrhea that’s accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, lethargy, vomiting, or rectal bleeding. It may be due to the above conditions or another gastrointestinal problem that’s not related to stress or anxiety.

If you’re taking any medication, it’s important to check the patient information leaflet to determine whether diarrhea is listed as a possible side effect.

Why Stress & Anxiety Cause Stomach Problems

The reason behind this type of diarrhea has to do with how the body is programmed to respond to anxiety and distress. This is usually referred to as the fight or flight reaction which helps it to survive in challenging situations.

When you are in physical danger, the body releases adrenaline and readies itself to tackle the threat or flee from it. When you’re under stress, your body’s systems also react with a series of physical changes.

Have you noticed that when you’re under psychological stress, your body muscles tense up and sometimes, the heart rate also increases? What you may not know is that the stress hormones stimulate the nerves that control muscles in the gut wall. This speeds up bowel motility, which is the movement of the bowels through the body.

stomach reaction to stress

The fast action prevents proper digestion of food and absorption of fluid from the contents of the colon. In some cases, the undigested food can also draw more water into the intestines. The result is a watery stool that is passed several times during the day and over a short period, usually during the duration of stress and anxiety.

Symptoms of Stress Diarrhea

How do you determine whether your anxiety diarrhea is triggered by psychological distress or is due to another condition?

The first obvious sign is if it occurs when you’re going through a stressful period. Some other symptoms that may accompany it include the following:

  • Episodes of runny stool, usually more than two or three times a day.
  • Occasional trembling which is part of the body’s fight or flight response in reaction to stress. It occurs when the body’s muscles tighten in response to the situation.
  • Lack of adequate sleep.
  • Dizziness, which is usually due to lack of enough sleep.

The symptoms of stress related diarrhea can come and go rarely or occur frequently, and they differ from one person to another based on the level of anxiety. You may experience body tremors during the period, while another person may suffer a lack of sleep or dizziness together with diarrhea.

These symptoms may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other stress-related symptoms or occur independently.

Stress & Anxiety Can Also Lead to IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that affects around 11% of the population. IBS symptoms occur due to a complex biological reaction between the brain and the gut.

For you to correctly understand IBS, it’s important to recognize that it represents a heightened sensitivity of the bowel in response to certain external or internal factors. While it is not a psychological disorder, it has come to be linked with both stress and anxiety.

We have learned that stress and anxiety trigger spasms in the gut which affect bowel motility and cause diarrhea. Additionally, they can negatively impact the body’s immune system which in turn triggers IBS symptoms.

In fact, stress has been shown to increase motility in the colon to a greater degree in people with IBS as compared to healthy individuals without IBS. IBS that’s triggered by stress and anxiety may come with the following symptoms:

  • Stomach pain which is sometimes relieved by bowel movement
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Bloating

It is important to note that irritable bowel syndrome is not a psychological disorder. However, stress can trigger it due to reactions in the digestive systems.

Also, individuals who suffer from IBS may be more sensitive to emotional distress, and this triggers the symptoms as well.

Can Diarrhea Be a Sign of Depression?

Are you worried that your gastrointestinal disorders could be as a result of depression? Sure most of us feel sad, lonely, and depressed at times.

It’s okay to have these feelings sometimes, but when they occur over a prolonged period, you are bound to get worried. This is more so if they are accompanied by diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, and weight changes.

Before getting into the relationship between depression and diarrhea, it is important to recognize the symptoms of clinical depression. Research by the National Institute of Mental Health shows that depression is characterized by the following:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and worthlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Change in dietary patterns that is, overeating or loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal disorders such as stomach pain and diarrhea that don’t go away with treatment
  • Suicidal thoughts

It is evident that diarrhea is one of the symptoms of depression; however, it is inaccurate to assume that you are suffering from depression due to this sign alone.

However, since individuals who suffer from depression may often show signs of stress and anxiety, self-diagnosis can be difficult. At the same time, it is advisable to see the doctor if you think that the episodes of diarrhea and other accompanying symptoms are as a result of depression.

How Long Can Stress Related Diarrhea Last?

Taking multiple trips to the bathroom due to anxiety sucks not only because of how uncomfortable it is but also since it can last for a while. The duration of stress-induced diarrhea depends on various factors such as the intensity of the stress and measures taken to calm yourself down.

Ideally, diarrhea will begin to subside as the body recovers from the stress response. The normal bowel motility is restored, and the digestive system can absorb fluid from the bowel.

The body can take minutes or more to recover from a stress response once you begin to calm down. However, prolonged psychological distress can extend the body’s recovery period significantly.

If you are sure that the diarrhea is as a result of anxiety, there should be no cause for alarm. However, you can take some steps to calm yourself down during a stressful period and prevent or alleviate the associated symptoms.

Try These Solutions for Stress & Anxiety Diarrhea

While it may be impossible to avoid circumstances that cause us anxiety and distress, there are ways you can manage the stomach upsets during these periods. Several remedies are available for managing and easing stress and anxiety diarrhea. They include the following:

1. Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques such as yoga, visualization, and deep breathing exercises are known to relieve physical and emotional stress, and as a result, can reduce diarrhea. Try the relaxation and stretching exercises in the video below whenever you feel anxious, and they can help prevent or alleviate the symptoms.

2. Occupy Your Mind

Psychological distress and associated gastrointestinal issues tend to worsen when you focus on them. Distract your mind by engaging in fun activities, working, listening to music, exercising, or anything else that will keep you occupied.

3. Sleep

Try to get enough sleep to avoid dizziness, headaches, and feelings of tiredness. You can practice deep breathing just before bed to calm the mind and induce sleep naturally.

4. Change Your Diet

Eat a balanced diet with fibers to alleviate symptoms of IBS. You may also want to avoid products that cause bloating during this period.

foods that cause bloating

5. Use a Natural Anti-Diarrhea or IBS Supplement

Use a natural supplement that relieves digestion and helps against diarrhea and IBS. This may be particularly necessary if you suffer from IBS as it may come with stomach pain and bloating. Here’s a great option from Summus Naturals.

6. Take a Probiotic Daily

Probiotics are “good bacteria” that keep your gut balanced and healthy. Most people don’t have enough, and probiotics are particularly helpful for people who suffer from stomach issues such as IBS and diarrhea.

In fact, one study found female IBS patients experienced alleviation from symptoms such as abdominal pain and irregularity after taking a probiotic supplement.

But all probiotics are not equal. Here’s the one I use and recommend. Seriously, don’t skimp out on a probiotic. They’re a necessity for everyone regardless if you have IBS or not.

These techniques work differently for various people. You should try several of them and find the ones that work for you. If the symptoms don’t subside with these techniques or even after seeking medical advice, you may want to consider psychological care. Therapy can help alleviate the stress and even prevent depression which may result from long-term psychological distress or trauma.

When to See a Doctor About Your Stress Diarrhea

Stress-induced diarrhea is manageable without the need for medical help. However, there are some cases when it would be advisable to see your doctor.

First, if the loose stool is accompanied by other symptoms as we discussed earlier, it could be a sign of an underlying condition.

Second, if you suspect that the diarrhea is as a result of depression, it is good to get checked by the doctor.

Seek medical assistance if you notice these symptoms as well:

  • Signs of rectal bleeding
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever that lasts more than two days
  • Dehydration even after taking fluids

You’re bound to experience situations that may cause stress and anxiety in the course of our daily lives.

When stomach upsets and diarrhea accompany the psychological distress, it can worsen an uncomfortable situation. Follow these tips to tips to manage stress and anxiety related diarrhea or other gastrointestinal issues that may arise.

Remember to seek medical diagnosis and treatment if diarrhea persists or is accompanied by other signs or symptoms.

Additional Resources

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About the author

I'm an avid reader and love anything to do with mindfulness and mental health!

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