Your entire digestion system is incredibly delicate. Even the smallest problem can cause it to react poorly, leading to many different types of bowel problems that can cause anything from minor discomfort to significant distress.
Bowel problems are a common problem with anxiety, as the stress from anxiety alters hormones, changes digestion speeds, and puts significant pressure on your intestines. This article explores some of the more common bowel problems from anxiety.
Are Your Bowel Issues Anxiety?
It's nearly impossible to diagnose bowel problems without a doctor's intervention. But bowel problems are a common anxiety symptom that for some people may be problematic enough greatly impact their life. The best way to know if your anxiety is what may be causing your bowel issues is to see a doctor and take our free 7 minute anxiety test.
Types of Anxiety Bowel Problems
Your entire digestive tract is incredibly complex. In many ways there aren't any bowel issues that can't be caused by anxiety. In addition, it may be hard to specifically link anxiety and bowel problems. First make sure that you are suffering from anxiety at all with my free 7 minute anxiety test. Then use that information to fight your anxiety.
Below is a quick breakdown of some of the bowel problems of anxiety. It is not a comprehensive list, and you could suffer from bowel issues that are much different than those described below:
Diarrhea and Constipation
The two most common issues are diarrhea and constipation. These basic digestive issues affect nearly everyone living with severe stress.
What's interesting is that it's not clear what causes these issues to occur. It's likely that your anxiety both alters digestion and alters water intake to the intestines in some way that either slows food or pushes food too quickly through the digestive tract.
It's important to note that the same neurotransmitters that can lead to anxiety when out of balance, like serotonin, also play a role in telling your gut how to react. So it's possible that those with anxiety simply do not have enough of specific neurotransmitters that are necessary for proper bowel functioning.
Another common problem with bowels is gas and flatulence. During periods of intense anxiety, the body tends to process foods poorly, and poorly processed foods can lead to gas.
There are other factors as well. Those with anxiety are prone to air swallowing and hyperventilation, and these can lead to excess air in the body. Usually this air is released through the mouth, but in some cases it can be released through bowel instead.
Another problem - and one that often goes hand in hand with diarrhea, although not always - is stool discoloration. Anxiety can push food through the digestive tract too quickly. Food generally gets its colors as it moves down the intestines, so if at any point the food stays too long in one spot or moves too quickly to another spot, it may not obtain the colors that people traditionally are used to with their stool. These include:
- Yellow stool.
- Black stool.
- Grayish brown stool.
Any time you have worries about your stool color you should see a doctor, especially if you are concerned about blood in the stool. But often these colors are the result of anxiety leading food down the digestive tract at unusual paces.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
There is an entire disorder that is linked specifically to anxiety and stress. Some believe that irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is caused by stress. Others believe that it's caused by something else, but flare ups occur when you are stressed.
Regardless, IBS is known to be related to anxiety in some way, and many describe getting panic attacks during and after bowel movements as a result of their IBS. IBS has all of the problems of other bowel issues, including diarrhea, gas, and severe stomach discomfort. But it tends to be more constant and may require additional medical attention.
The "Need to Go"
Finally, anxiety can also cause a feeling of needing to go to the bathroom even though it is not your regular time or you have already gone during the day.
This is because when the fight or flight system is activated, pressure builds up inside of the body which can make stool feel like it needs to come out. The body also uses so much energy during times of intense stress that it has less energy to hold the anal sphincter in place.
Some also believe that anxiety may actually create the need to go automatically as part of the fight or flight reason, although the evolutionary benefit of this is not as clear. It's possible that during periods of extreme fear, the body doesn't want to waste energy holding feces in when it may need that energy to fight or flee.
How to Overcome Bowel Issues
Dealing with a tricky bowel can be very difficult, because the bowel itself is a completely automatic process. The best thing you can do for yourself is ensure that you are digesting the healthiest foods possible so that your bowel has to do less work.
Even though the bowel problems are not necessarily food based, the body has an easier time digesting healthy foods that are high in fiber. If and when anxiety alters your digestion, the foods that were easier to digest are going to be less effected than the foods that are harder to digest, like fatty foods and fried foods. Eating healthier can be a big help.
Beyond that, the key is going to be overcoming your anxiety. Your bowel problems are nothing more than a reaction to your overall mental health, so the faster you cure your mental health, the better you'll feel.
I've helped thousands of people with anxiety bowel issues overcome them. The only way to accurately help is for you to take my free 7 minute anxiety test. The test is designed to carefully consider your symptoms and provide you with an interesting snapshot of your anxiety.
Addolorato, Giovanni, et al. Anxiety and depression: a common feature of health care seeking patients with irritable bowel syndrome and food allergy. Hepato-gastroenterology 45.23 (1998): 1559.
Pinto, C., et al. Stressful life-events, anxiety, depression and coping in patients of irritable bowel syndrome. The Journal of the Association of Physicians of India 48.6 (2000): 589.
Blanchard, Edward B., et al. The role of anxiety and depression in the irritable bowel syndrome. Behaviour research and therapy 28.5 (1990): 401-405.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.