10 Minutes

Have you ever noticed how your stomach suddenly decides to throw a wild party just when you are preparing for a big presentation? Or how do you suddenly feel like using the toilet a bit too much the night before your final exam? If so, you are not the only one.

Anxiety and diarrhea may seem like a very odd couple, but when it comes to your body, they can actually be best friends. It is not uncommon for the brain to send your digestive system into overdrive when you are anxious, thanks to the famous ‘gut-brain axis’ that closely connects the two systems. [1]

Read Also About Signs You Are Recovering From Anxiety

Let’s discuss more about anxiety and diarrhea, focusing on what drives this unique relationship and what to do when your stomach decides to throw a fit in the middle of a stressful event.

Can anxiety cause diarrhea? Definitely. But what are its symptoms?

The symptoms of anxiety diarrhea are highly variable in terms of intensity and severity. In most cases, it comes in waves, making you experience diarrhea for a couple of days straight before completely vanishing, only to return a few days later.

Some common descriptions of anxiety-provoked diarrhea include the following:

  • You notice your bowel movements becoming loose, watery, and runny
  • The episodes of runny stools become too frequent
  • No matter what you try, you always need to rush to the toilet to prevent accidents
  • You start worrying about having a diarrhea attack at an inappropriate time, such as in the middle of a business meeting, which may embarrass you
  • You start locating toilets wherever you go just in case anxiety diarrhea hits you

Remember that anxiety diarrhea may be highly variable. For some, it may occur rarely, while others may persistently experience it throughout the day. These loose motions can also precede, accompany, or follow after an anxiety episode.

Yes, anxiety can not only cause but also aggravate diarrhea through one or more of the following ways.

The Stress Response

Anxiety can activate the stress response, triggering multiple changes across the body that give you an immediate boost along with other resources necessary to get you through a perceived threat. This survival reaction, often termed the fight or flight response, causes the following changes in the body:

  • It stimulates the nervous system
  • It boosts blood sugar levels to give you an instant energy boost
  • It increases the release of hydrochloric acid for quicker assimilation of food already present in your gut
  • It decreases the amount of blood flow to less-vital body parts, such as the skin and digestive system, while re-directing it to more vital ones, like the legs, arms, and brain
  • It reduces saliva production and suppresses digestive processes so the body can use most of its resources to fight or escape a threat
  • It decreases the digestive tract mobility
  • It tightens the muscles to make the body more resilient
  • It induces a strong urge to empty the bowels so you do not have to go to the toilet in the middle of a fight or flight situation

Any combination of the changes mentioned above can directly affect the digestive system, causing problems like diarrhea. [2]

Hyperstimulation

Going through a stress response occasionally is easy on the body as it can quickly recover from the changes it triggers. However, when this starts happening too frequently, such as due to ongoing anxiety, your body may not get enough time to recover completely.

The incomplete recovery due to ongoing anxiety can push you into a state of semi-stress response readiness, also known as hyperstimulation, hyperarousal, or nervous system dysregulation.

Hyperstimulation can make your body go through all the changes that generally occur due to an active stress response, even though this response has not been activated. Consequently, you may get diarrhea because of how a hyper-stimulated body regulates the digestive system.

Medication Use

Many anxiolytics, such as fluoxetine, can trigger diarrhea along with other prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Talking to a doctor or pharmacist is important if you suspect that one of your medications is causing you to have loose stools.

Stimulant Use

Stimulant medications work by triggering the release of stress hormones along with other chemicals in the body. Having too much stress hormone in the blood can trigger and aggravate anxiety and associated symptoms, like diarrhea.

Recreational Drug Use

Using recreational drugs can induce high levels of anxiety by directly impacting the nervous system. Once the anxiety levels rise, your body may respond by changing various physiological processes, leading to diarrhea.

Sleep Deprivation

If you go without getting adequate sleep, your body may undergo many changes, such as:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Impaired brain function
  • Increased mood swings
  • Elevated blood sugar
  • Higher stress levels in the nervous system
  • Elevated cortisol secretion to compensate for ongoing fatigue

All the changes mentioned above can send your body into a stressed state, leading to anxiety and diarrhea. [3]

Blood Sugar Fluctuations

Low blood sugars often lead to anxiety-like symptoms and can even exacerbate pre-existing anxiety symptoms, one of which may include diarrhea.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Low levels of certain nutrients and vitamins, such as vitamins B and D, can trigger anxiety or aggravate its associated symptoms, including diarrhea.

Are you constantly going in and out of the bathroom due to the continually high anxiety levels in the back of your mind? Consider strategizing a self-care plan to manage the anxiety levels and keep diarrhea in control.

Never Hold It

Remember always to answer nature’s call and avoid holding it. Even if the urge to rush to the toilet does not come at the best time, holding it will not benefit you in any way. Anxious or not, you have to go when you have to. Getting waste out of the body through a bowel movement is always good.

Moreover, purposely holding it can make you go into retention, adding the following problems to the picture:

  • Abdominal distension
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Rectal prolapse
  • Diverticulosis
  • Overflow diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating and excessive gas

Remember that the risk of experiencing the side effects mentioned above is higher in times of stress or anxiety. Moreover, poor bowel movements can also make you go to the toilet excessively. On the other hand, having one high-quality bowel movement may significantly lessen the need to keep going back to the toilet

Practice Breathing Exercises

The key to stopping anxiety diarrhea is getting your stress levels under control. Whenever you feel the tension rising, take a deep breath in and out and repeat it a couple of times. This simple yet powerful exercise can not only soothe your nervous system but also calm down digestion.

Start Working Out

Consider adding light exercises, such as yoga, stretching, or brisk walking, to get out of your usual routine and give your mind a break. If you are considering working out properly, adopt a core-based exercise routine to get your digestive system moving in the right way.

Core strength training exercises can strengthen your abdominal muscles, which can significantly improve the quality of your defecation. [4] When you have a bowel movement, less stool is left behind in your colon, relieving you of many long-term symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea, and cramping.

You may need to try various exercises to understand what works best for you. The important thing is to remain consistent.

Have a Go-To Activity to Cut Down Anxiety

Having a few mindfulness activities in mind to reduce stress levels and practicing it daily can significantly help reduce ongoing diarrheal episodes. Some examples of these activities include the following:

  • Music therapy
  • Yoga
  • Morning mantras
  • Any creative activity, such as painting, knitting, or baking
  • Journaling
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Cuddling your pet

Make Yourself a Soothing Cup of Tea

A soothing cup of tea made with fennel, peppermint, or chamomile, can not only help settle an upset stomach but also relax your mind and control the high stress levels. These two effects combined can help you control anxiety and diarrhea in a much better yet easier way.

Be Kind to Yourself

It’s natural to blame yourself, especially when your body is not communicating with you as you had hoped. Try having some compassion for yourself and your body and reminding yourself that you are doing your best.

Giving yourself some credit can also contribute to relaxation and reassurance that may reduce your anxiety levels and eventually improve your diarrhea.

Look for Support

While anxiety and diarrhea may be an overlooked issue, struggling with it is not easy. Seeking out some words of kindness and affirmation from a loved one for your own ongoing problem can help you make the issue more tolerable. Reaching out for support does not make you vulnerable but helps you get the validation you need to feel calmer and more confident.

If you are constantly going to the toilet due to the ever-high anxiety levels, paying attention to what you eat and how you eat is essential. Consider adjusting your diet by introducing more gentle foods while avoiding potential irritants.

Foods to Add

Following are the foods to add to your daily dietary regimes to calm anxiety and soothe your stomach:

  • Olive Oil
  • Gluten-free grains, such as quinoa, oats, and buckwheat
  • Caffeine-free teas, such as peppermint, turmeric, and chamomile [5]
  • Probiotic-rich food items, such as kefir, Greek yogurt, and other fermented foods
  • Brassicas, including kale and broccoli

Research has found that a plant-based, gluten-free diet combined with mindfulness and daily exercise can improve anxiety and depression in the majority of people. [6] Other dietary hacks, such as cutting back on alcohol, refined sugar, and caffeine, also promote these positive effects.

In addition to the foods mentioned above, experts recommend drinking enough water, sometimes with added electrolytes, to compensate for ongoing losses during high-stress periods. Some essential minerals that need replacement include potassium and sodium. You can easily replace them by eating more water-rich veggies and fruit, such as tomatoes, peaches, and cucumbers.

Foods to Avoid

To fight off the effects of anxiety on the digestive tract, consider limiting the use of certain pro-inflammatory foods and drinks. These may include the following:

  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Caffeine
  • Spicy food
  • Sugary drinks, like soda
  • Processed foods
  • Alcohol
  • Foods rich in sugar

All foods mentioned above increase inflammation, putting you at risk of digestive problems like bloating and diarrhea. [7

Many research trials have investigated the role of mindful eating in improving overall digestive and gut function. [8] Most concluded that mindful eating can significantly cut down the impact of anxiety and stress on digestion.

So how can you start being more mindful of what you put in your tummy? The following tips can help:

Eat in a soothing environment

When you are about to have a meal, try making your environment as soothing and calming as possible. Remove all electronic devices from the table and clear the table of any unwanted items, such as laptops or mobile phones.

Light a candle and take out your favorite utensils to eat. You may get some flowers to add a bit of freshness and color to your eating table. The idea is to use anything that makes the eating experience more soothing for you to lower anxiety levels and manage consequent diarrhea.

Take it slow

Eat slowly, chewing every bite carefully. This practice will break down your food properly, making it easier to digest. It will also help you focus more on what you are eating and make you feel calmer.

Most experts advise chewing every mouthful up to 30 times and taking deep breaths between bites. When chewing, remember to put down your fork and knife to focus completely on the food in your mouth.

Meditate

Meditating before meals can de-stress your nervous system and prepare it for eating. Guided meditation or a simple breathing exercise can be a good way to practice this tip

Engage your senses as you eat

Dedicate enough time to taste what you are eating every time you sit at the dining table. Doing so can stimulate saliva secretion, making digestion easier. [9] Moreover, it also makes you appreciate food more and instills a sense of gratitude, eventually lowering anxiety.

Let a piece of chocolate melt in your mouth to appreciate its bittersweet taste, or suck on a fresh lemon to notice its sourness. If these issues worsen your digestive problems, try the technique with healthier options, such as herbal tea.

Taming the Anxious Gut

Now that you understand the quirky relationship between anxiety and diarrhea, you know what to do the next time your stomach decides to throw a fit in the middle of an important task. Remind yourself that it’s just your body trying to deal with stress.

So instead of stressing more and making things worse, take a few deep breaths, meditate, and eat healthily to calm your mind and gut. If everything fails, seeking help from a medical professional is always an option.

1 Labanski A, Langhorst J, Engler H, Elsenbruch S. Stress and the brain-gut axis in functional and chronic-inflammatory gastrointestinal diseases: A transdisciplinary challenge. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2020 Jan 1;111:104501.

2 Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, Ayers D. Physiology, stress reaction.

3 Cremonini F, Camilleri M, Zinsmeister AR, Herrick LM, Beebe T, Talley NJ. Sleep disturbances are linked to both upper and lower gastrointestinal symptoms in the general population. Neurogastroenterology & Motility. 2009 Feb;21(2):128-35.

4 Riezzo G, Prospero L, D’Attoma B, Ignazzi A, Bianco A, Franco I, Curci R, Campanella A, Bonfiglio C, Osella AR, Russo F. The Impact of a Twelve-Week Moderate Aerobic Exercise Program on Gastrointestinal Symptom Profile and Psychological Well-Being of Irritable Bowel Syndrome Patients: Preliminary Data from a Southern Italy Cohort. J Clin Med. 2023 Aug 17;12(16):5359. doi: 10.3390/jcm12165359. PMID: 37629401; PMCID: PMC10455088.

5 Norwitz NG, Naidoo U. Nutrition as metabolic treatment for anxiety. Frontiers in psychiatry. 2021 Feb 12;12:598119.

6 Null G, Pennesi L. Diet and lifestyle intervention on chronic moderate to severe depression and anxiety and other chronic conditions. Complementary therapies in clinical practice. 2017 Nov 1;29:189-93.

7 Ng QX, Soh AYS, Loke W, Lim DY, Yeo WS. The role of inflammation in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). J Inflamm Res. 2018 Sep 21;11:345-349. doi: 10.2147/JIR.S174982. PMID: 30288077; PMCID: PMC6159811.

8 Cherpak CE. Mindful Eating: A Review Of How The Stress-Digestion-Mindfulness Triad May Modulate And Improve Gastrointestinal And Digestive Function. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2019 Aug;18(4):48-53. PMID: 32549835; PMCID: PMC7219460.

9 Pedersen AM, Sørensen CE, Proctor GB, Carpenter GH. Salivary functions in mastication, taste and textural perception, swallowing and initial digestion. Oral diseases. 2018 Nov;24(8):1399-416.

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