While not usually discussed in the company of others, digestive issues are one of the most common residual effects of anxiety. Stress and anxiety place a great deal of pressure on your body and that pressure may cause issues with digestion. .
It may seem unusual for anxiety to lead to gastrointestinal issues, but problems like diarrhea are incredibly common - both as a result of anxiety attacks and through persistent stress. This discomfort can remain a regular fixture in the lives of those struggling with severe anxiety symptoms.
Diarrhea May Be a Sign of Anxiety
It is impossible to deny the effects of anxiety and/or stress on your body's gastrointestinal system. One of the most interesting aspects of diarrhea is that it can actually be a sign that you are suffering from anxiety - not just a symptom of that anxiety.
In fact, stress-related diarrhea may signal to doctors and psychologists that a person may be struggling with their mental health. Often people that experience unexplained diarrhea have stress issues that might hint at a possible long term anxiety and/or stress problem.
Why Does Anxiety Cause Diarrhea?
Many of the exact causes of anxiety and its symptoms are still being determined. However, the main reason that anxiety-induced diarrhea occurs is because of the way the body is reacting to the "fight or flight" system. The “fight or flight” system occurs whenever your body perceives danger, whether real or not.
During anxiety, your body makes the decision to either stay and “fight” the potential threat or to flee (“flight”) from the situation. While this innate mechanism was helpful for keeping human beings alive and out of unnecessary harm, the system may be triggered for no clear reason at all.
Anxiety is the activation of the “fight or flight” system when no dangers are present. When your body is in overdrive, it causes a surge of adrenaline to redistribute your blood flow to make sure that your key organs are taken care of. This means that blood flows more to your brain, heart, lungs, and muscles. During this time, your gut does not receive as much blood flow as it normally would, leading to poor stool health and intestines that are not processing food properly.
This decreased blood flow to your gut causes it to slow down. At this point, you might be asking, “Well if my gut is slowing down, then why do I have to “go”? It turns out that some of these stress hormones can cause your large intestine to just evacuate (i.e. suddenly making you run for the nearest bathroom). This is what can lead to the symptom of diarrhea whenever you are extremely anxious.
Does Stress Cause Diarrhea?
While stress is not the same as anxiety, it too can result in diarrhea. Everyone responds to stress in their own way, whether it is abdominal cramping, upset stomach, loss of sleep, fatigue, loss of appetite, overeating, and even decreasing your immune system - making you more susceptible to common colds.
So if you experience abdominal cramping whenever stressed, you could be more prone to having diarrhea. Stress is known for causing muscle tension, which may lead to your gastrointestinal system not digesting food effectively and causing an increased effect on defecation.
Both stress and anxiety are also known triggers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But keep in mind that having anxiety and/or stress with diarrhea does not equate to a person being diagnosed with IBS. It is not exactly clear why that link occurs, but a person prone to IBS may find that it flares when they are under increased stress or pressure.
What About Nervousness?
Nervousness is commonly associated with anxiety; but while they have similarities, they are also different in many ways. Nervousness can be a symptom of anxiety, or it can occur on its own. Nervousness is fear that can be calmed and controlled, because the individual understands that this is a fleeting moment.
Anxiety, on the other hand, impairs the lives of those who suffer from it, often stunting the way they work, maintain relationships with other, or simply impact the things they love to do. Still, nervousness, just like stress and anxiety can cause transient diarrhea that will likely alleviate once the stimulus causing the nervousness is over.
How Often Can Diarrhea Occur?
Those that suffer from persistent, regular anxiety may experience diarrhea at any time. During periods of anxiety, the brain tells the gut to slow or stop digestion, and the effects of that may be felt at any time. A person may experience diarrhea once a day, or they may experience it several times over a period of a few hours.
An exception is for those with panic attacks from anxiety. Panic attacks tend to trigger a more profound response in the gut. The intensity of these panic/anxiety attacks tends to have an immediate impact, and most of those with panic attacks will experience diarrhea either during or soon after an episode.
However, because those with panic attacks often also experience persistent or chronic anxiety, diarrhea can still occur at any time. Severe, frequent diarrhea should still be reviewed by a doctor to be safe.
What to Do Right Now
If you are currently struggling with anxiety-induced diarrhea (or you encounter it frequently enough to cause discomfort), you need a plan to help prevent reoccurrence or at least better manage your symptoms. Provided below are some strategies you can do right now.
As Bucky said to Captain America: "When you gotta go, you gotta go."
Keep in mind, however, that once your gut is ready “to go” (especially with diarrhea), there is very little you can do in that moment to stop the process. It is often better to just go. Trying to hold it in can be painful and cause other discomfort. Other immediate strategies include:
- Slow your breathing - Hyperventilation and panic attacks go hand-in-hand, and both contribute to considerable stress on the body. Taking slow, deliberate breaths while expanding your abdomen (instead of your chest) can reduce hyperventilation and the stress associated with anxiety attacks. If expanding your abdomen feels awkward, it is okay. Just work on slowing down your breathing.
- Stay distracted - Many people find that fixating on their abdominal issues tends to exacerbate the problem. Instead, make sure you are finding ways to stay distracted.
- Eat some bread - For many people, bread has a natural tendency to decrease diarrhea (assuming you are a not sensitive to it). It also serves as an effective distraction (hint to the suggestion above) and promotes blood flow to your GI tract through your chewing, reactivating this system.
How to Treat Diarrhea From Anxiety in the Long Run
A good place to start is by eating a healthier diet for your GI tract that is high in fiber, low in acid content, low in added sugar, and high in vitamins. While our dietary suggestions are helpful, it is unlikely to completely remedy the issue completely, simply due to the nature of the diarrhea.
Anti-diarrheal treatments are effective in some cases, but not for all. It is not clear why some individuals experience success with these treatments and others do not. The most likely reason for this treatment is effective is that the person is simply treating an already present gastrointestinal issue that is being exacerbated by anxiety, but not caused by anxiety.
Nevertheless, you will still need to treat your anxiety symptoms in order to truly get to the root of your diarrhea. This will involve both long and short-term (included below) changes:
- Exercise more - Exercise is a powerful anti-anxiety strategy that may aid digestion by moving food through your gastrointestinal tract at a better pace.
- Avoid/Reduce coffee, milk, and other triggers - There are many foods, most notably coffee and dairy, that tend to trigger diarrhea on their own. Consuming these foods when experiencing anxiety or stress might only worsen the diarrhea. You do not necessarily have to cut these foods out of your diet, but consider limiting their intake until your diarrhea is better managed. The same is true of fatty foods, overeating, alcohol, and any other foods that disturb your body.
- Sleep better - Poor sleep causes two separate challenges for those with diarrhea. Poor sleep quality induces stress, increasing the likelihood of anxiety. Poor sleep can often lead to increased coffee intake to stay awake; coffee is commonly linked to gastrointestinal symptoms, including diarrhea. Sleeping well can reduce both of these issues.
These are unlikely to cure anxiety-induced diarrhea on their own, but a combination of strategies might allow you to better manage your condition. The gastrointestinal system is complex, and when it interprets stress, it is likely to cause significant discomfort. That is why your ultimate step will be to reduce your anxiety and/or stress altogether.