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Can Anxiety and Stress Cause Diarrhea?

When Stress Goes to Your Stomach

By

Updated April 11, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Can Anxiety and Stress Cause Diarrhea?
Photo: Pierre Bourrier/Getty Images

Although there are a wide variety of health conditions that have diarrhea as a symptom, sometimes the cause of diarrhea can be attributed simply to anxiety or stress. If this happens to you -- that is, you experience diarrhea symptoms when you are not sick, but instead are just "stressed out" -- it would be helpful to learn why this happens and what strategies you can use to avoid this unpleasant, and certainly unwanted, physical symptom.

Why Does Anxiety Cause Diarrhea?

The phenomenon behind the experience of stress-induced diarrhea is directly related to our body's programmed stress response. This "fight-or-flight" reaction did a great job in helping us to survive as a species, but has become more troublesome in light of the challenges and fast pace of modern-day life. When we are faced with something that we perceive as threatening, our bodies react with a variety of physical changes: heart rate and respiration increase, our muscles tense up, blood is directed toward our extremities, and most relevant to the current discussion, our colon contractions speed up. In some cases, this increase in colon activity results in the symptom of diarrhea.

Is This IBS?

Individuals who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can readily attest to the effect that stress has on their digestive system. However, it is possible to experience stress-triggered diarrhea without having IBS. IBS is a syndrome that involves bouts of abdominal pain and significant and ongoing problems with diarrhea and/or constipation. A diagnosis of IBS is made according to specific criteria known as the Rome III criteria.

What Can Be Done?

You do not have to be a passive victim of anxiety-triggered diarrhea. There are a variety of stress management techniques that you can use to help your body to become more resilient in its response to outside stressors. The following are some activities that have been associated with reducing your body's baseline anxiety level, thus helping you to deal more effectively with the more stressful situations you may face:

There are also techniques that you can use "on the spot" to help your body to turn off the stress response. Like all skills, these relaxation exercises are more effective when they are practiced on a regular basis.

If you are under a lot of stress, it is also important to take an objective look at your life to see if changes can be made to reduce your overall stress level. Problem-solving and assertiveness skills can be utilized to make your life more comfortable. It may be helpful to initiate some psychotherapy to help you to better manage the stresses and challenges that are contributing to your anxiety-induced diarrhea.

When to See a Medical Doctor

Even if you are fairly certain that stress is the culprit, as with any unusual physical complaint, you should be sure to discuss the issue with your doctor to ensure that no other disease process is present and contributing to the problem. You should seek immediate medical attention should you experience any of the following:

  • Blood in stools or any sign of rectal bleeding
  • Dehydration
  • Fever over 102 or fever that lasts more than three days
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Severe abdominal pain

Sources:

"Diarrhea." National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). Accessed October 11, 2011.

Mayer, E.A., et.al. " Stress and the Gastrointestinal Tract" American Journal of Physiology - Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology 2001 4:G519-G524.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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