Digestion issues are unfortunately one of the most common problems with anxiety. Stress and anxiety put a great deal of pressure on your body and your hormones, and that pressure can easily affect your 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 - and are something that many people struggle with when they have severe anxiety symptoms.
Is Your Diarrhea Anxiety?
Anxiety can have a strong effect on the gut and intestinal muscles, especially severe anxiety. If you haven't yet, take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your anxiety severity, learn more about how your anxiety may be causing diarrhea, compare your anxiety to others, and more.
Diarrhea May Be a Sign of Anxiety
It's impossible to deny the effects of anxiety on your body's gastrointestinal system. One of the most interesting aspects of diarrhea is that it can actually be a sign that you're suffering from anxiety - not just a symptom of that anxiety. Often people that experience unexplained diarrhea have long term stress issues that indicate a stress/anxiety problem.
If you haven't yet, take the free 7-minute anxiety test I developed. It's free, and its purpose is to see if it's likely that you're suffering from anxiety related gastrointestinal symptoms.
Why Does Anxiety Cause Diarrhea?
Many of the exact causes of anxiety and its symptoms are still being discovered. But the main reason that anxiety causes diarrhea is because of the way the body is reacting to the "fight or flight" system.
Anxiety is the activation of the fight or flight system when no fears are present. That stress causes a rush of adrenaline that redistributes both water and blood flow. That redistribution means that your gastrointestinal tract is not filtering water correctly, leading to poor stool health. Your body also slows the digestion of food, which contributes to diarrhea.
Does Stress Cause Diarrhea?
There are additional factors at play as well. For example, the stress of anxiety will put a considerable amount of physical stress on your stomach and organs as well, and that pressure may lead to your body not processing food well. Stress also leads to muscle tension, which may also have an effect on defecation.
Stress (and anxiety) also appear to be triggers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It's not exactly clear why that link occurs, but a person prone to IBS may find that it flares when they are under stress or pressure.
What About Nervousness?
"Nervousness" is similar to anxiety in many ways. Nervousness itself is a symptom of anxiety, but can also occur on its own. When a person is nervous, their mind and gut fail to communicate, and you may find yourself swallowing more air as you breathe faster - all of which need a place to get out and find the intestines the best ride.
FInally, the nervousness and stress you experience when you cannot get a bathroom on time only make it worse.
Between stress, anxiety, and nervousness, of these can lead to diarrhea, as well as other gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
When Does Diarrhea Occur?
That that suffer from persistent, regular anxiety may experience diarrhea at any time. Some experience diarrhea daily, while others may simply increase the likelihood of diarrhea when eating foods that the body already struggles to process.
Digestion issues are also very common in those that suffer from panic attacks. These anxiety attacks can be so severe that they put a considerable amount of stress on the body all at once, thus placing a great deal of pressure on your gastrointestinal system. There is otherwise no right or wrong time for diarrhea to occur, but it is generally more common during anxiety episodes.
What to Do Right Now
If you are struggling with diarrhea from anxiety this very moment (or you struggle with it fast enough you need a plan for the next time it happens), there are some strategies you can do "right now."
Keep in mind, however, that often once you are ready "to go" it is often better to go. Trying to hold it all in can be painful and cause other discomforts. Other "Right Now" 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 through your stomach rather than your chest can reduce hyperventilation and the stress associated with anxiety attacks.
- Stay Distracted - Many people find that focusing on their stomach and gastrointestinal issues tend to make them worse. Make sure you're finding ways to stay distracted.
- Eat Some Bread - For many people, bread has a natural tendency to decrease diarrhea as long as the person is not sensitive to it. It also serves as an effective distraction and promotes blood flow through your chewing habits.
As Bucky said to Captain America: "When you gotta go, you gotta go." It can be difficult to stop the urge to defecate when it's coming, but if you are able to find a bathroom and can care for your anxiety, it should be back under control.
How to Treat Diarrhea From Anxiety
Eating a diet that is healthier for your gastrointestinal system (good fiber, low acid content, etc.) is a good place to start. Yet it's unlikely to cure the issue completely, simply due to the nature of the diarrhea.
Anti-diarrheal treatments are effective in some cases, but not for all. It's not clear why some people experience success with these treatments and not others, but the most likely reason for them to be effective is that they're reducing an already present gastrointestinal issue that is simply being exacerbated by anxiety but not caused by anxiety.
Regardless, you'll still need to treat your anxiety symptoms, as only by treating these symptoms can you cure your diarrhea. This will involve both long and short-term changes. In the short term:
Exercise More - Exercise is a powerful anti-anxiety strategy, and one that may help 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. When a person struggles with anxiety or stress, it only tends to make them worse. You do not necessarily have to cut these out of your diet, but consider limiting their intake until your diarrhea is under control. 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 causes stress and may increase the likelihood of anxiety. It is also a trigger of diarrhea on its own. Sleeping well can reduce both of these issues.
These are unlikely to cure it on their own. The gastrointestinal system complex, and when it experiences stress, it's likely to cause significant discomfort. That's why your next step will be to reduce your anxiety altogether.
Start by taking my 7-minute anxiety test I've helped thousands of people fight their anxiety, but a solid house cannot be built from the roof down, which means that before any treatment can be recommended it's crucial that you understand your anxiety in full. The test will provide you with:
- See how your anxiety compares to the average anxiety patient.
- Discover some of the potential sources of your anxiety.
- Check which physical and mental symptoms are likely to be anxiety related.
The test is free, and currently the best tool I have for starting on the path towards anxiety elimination. If you haven't yet, take the test now.
Fossey MD, Lydiard RB. Anxiety and the gastrointestinal system. Psychiatr Med. 1990;8(3):175-86.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 16, 2018.