Life Management Center
Charleston South Carolina
Understanding Stress-Induced Diarrhea
Anxiety and diarrhea can go hand in hand, with the noise in our minds being deeply connected to unwanted symptoms in our guts. Diarrhea is a common gastrointestinal complaint that affects millions of people worldwide. Stress is one of the many factors that can trigger diarrhea, otherwise known as stress-induced diarrhea. This uncomfortable and unsightly condition can cause significant anxiety and distress, making it a major concern for those who have to deal with it on a regular basis.
What is Stress-Induced Diarrhea?
Stress-induced diarrhea occurs when the body experiences stress and anxiety, and this psychological stress manifests in the form of physical symptoms. The stress response causes the body to release certain hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that can affect the digestive system. These hormones can cause an increase in bowel contractions and blood flow to the digestive system, leading to diarrhea.
Symptoms of Stress-Induced Diarrhea
The symptoms of stress-induced diarrhea can vary from person to person, but some common signs and symptoms include the following:
- Frequent loose bowel movements
- Abdominal cramping or pain
- Bloating or gas
- Nausea or vomiting
If stress is the cause of your diarrhea, you may also experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Headaches or neck tension
- Tiredness or sleep problems
- Irritability and restlessness
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sadness or depression
- Changes in libido (sex drive)
Stress can cause diarrhea because of the gut and brain connection, called the gut-brain axis. This axis connects your central nervous system—the brain and spinal cord—to your enteric (intestinal) nervous system. When stressed, neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) travel along this pathway to your gut, where they regulate the movement of water and electrolytes.
The diarrhea symptoms you experience during stressful situations may be part of your body’s fight-or-flight reaction. The discomfort and embarrassment from diarrhea can compound the stress that you are feeling.
Causes of Stress-Induced Diarrhea
Stress-induced diarrhea can have many different causes, including:
- Chronic stress
- Anxiety or depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Food intolerances or allergies
How Long Does Stress Diarrhea Last?
Most episodes of diarrhea are harmless and should last less than two days. Stress-induced diarrhea typically goes away once the stressful event has passed. If you have severe or persistent diarrhea, visit a healthcare professional to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Visit a doctor if you experience:
- Worsening symptoms or diarrhea that lasts for more than two days in adults
- Dehydration (signs include excessive thirst, dark yellow urine, no urine, severe weakness, or confusion)
- Severe abdominal pain or swelling
- Stools with blood or pus or stools that look black or tarry
Coping with Stress-Induced Diarrhea
Diarrhea can be your body’s way of telling you something might be wrong. But it can also make life even more difficult for you. Addressing the source of your stress and managing your response is one way to deal with stress diarrhea. If you have trouble managing your stress, speak to your healthcare provider. If you think you may be experiencing stress-induced diarrhea, there are several things you can do to help manage your symptoms:
Identify Your Stress Triggers
Sometimes it may be difficult to know what circumstance or event is causing you the most anxiety. Even positive events, such as buying a house, can be stressful. Learning your stress triggers is the first step in monitoring your stress. Think about what makes you feel angry, worried, or irritable. What is occurring, or what are you thinking about when you have stress-related GI issues?
Create Time to Relax and Recharge
If you feel stressed out, give yourself a break. Create time to relax and recharge, take proper lunch breaks at work, read an interesting magazine or book, or listen to some music. Practice stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises to help reduce anxiety and stress levels. Everyone has different ways to relax—just make sure that you set time aside for yourself.
Get Enough Sleep
We all perform better when we’re properly rested. This is because our bodies do the most healing while we sleep. Sleep is essential to feeling better if your body is out of whack from stress.
Share Your Problems
You don’t need to figure everything out on your own. Seek help and support from trusted family members and friends. Consider letting them help with the things that may prevent you from taking time to relax and recharge.
Watch what you eat and drink
Make changes to your diet, such as increasing fiber intake or avoiding trigger foods that can worsen symptoms. Rich or spicy foods can put additional strain on the digestive system, potentially worsening or prolonging diarrhea. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids to help replace any fluids lost due to diarrhea.
Exercising several times a week is a great way to de-stress and keep your overall digestive system healthy. Exercise releases chemicals called endorphins (“happy hormones”), which counteract the negative effects of stress. Slowly build up to an exercise routine if you are not used to exercising.
Keep Your Sense of Humor
Laughter is a great stress reducer and boosts the immune system, which is often weakened by stress. Spending time with friends is a great way to keep the mood lighter and share each other’s troubles.
Talk to your doctor
Seek support from a healthcare professional, such as a therapist or gastroenterologist, if symptoms persist or become unmanageable.
When to see a doctor
Most episodes of diarrhea are relatively harmless. However, severe or persistent diarrhea can sometimes indicate an underlying medical problem. People should visit a doctor if they experience any of the following:
- diarrhea lasting more than two days in adults or more than 24 hours in children
- signs of dehydration
- severe abdominal pain
- stools that contain blood or pus
- stools that appear black or tarry
People should also visit a doctor if they use medication and are worried that diarrhea will stop it from working properly.
Stress-induced diarrhea typically subsides once the stressful event has passed. However, a person should see a doctor if they experience prolonged or repeated bouts of stress or stress-induced diarrhea. A doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, talking therapies, or medications to help manage stress or anxiety.
Stress is a normal bodily reaction to pressure or perceived threats. However, it can affect various aspects of a person’s health, including digestion. Stress-related diarrhea can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but it is also a common problem affecting many people. By understanding the causes and symptoms of this condition and taking steps to manage stress levels, dietary habits, and exercise, you can help reduce the impact of chronic diarrhea on your daily life. If your symptoms persist, seeking medical advice to help identify underlying conditions or to receive appropriate treatment is always recommended.