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Why Anxiety Causes Diarrhea And What To Do


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Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: February 18, 2021


anxiety diarrhea symptoms

Diarrhea, runny stool, lose stool, abdominal pain, shooting stomach pains, and other symptoms associated with diarrhea are common symptoms of anxiety.

About one-third of anxious people experience anxiety-related diarrhea as a symptom.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and diarrhea symptoms.

Anxiety Diarrhea Symptoms:

Common descriptions of the diarrhea anxiety symptom include:

  • You find that your bowel movements are unusually loose, runny, and watery.
  • You are having episodes of loose, runny stools.
  • No matter what you do, your bowel movements are loose, watery, and runny.
  • You also have to run to the bathroom often because of persistent loose and runny stools.
  • You also have instances where you have to run to the bathroom to prevent an accident with diarrhea.
  • You also might have become concerned about having a diarrhea attack at an inopportune time, which could be embarrassing.
  • You also might have developed the habit of locating washrooms “just in case.”

This symptom can occur rarely, frequently, or persist 24/7 day after day. For example, you have diarrhea once in a while and not often, have it off and on, or have it all the time and every day.

Anxiety diarrhea can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms or occur by itself.

It can also precede, accompany, or follow a period of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress or occur "out of the blue" and for no apparent reason.

Anxiety diarrhea can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves where you have diarrhea for a few days and then nothing for another few days.

This anxiety symptom can change from day to day and moment to moment.

All of the above combinations and variations are common.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test, Anxiety Disorder Test, or Hyperstimulation Test.

The higher the rating, the more likely anxiety could be contributing to or causing your anxiety symptoms, including diarrhea symptoms.



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Why Anxiety Causes Diarrhea

Medical Advisory

We recommend all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms be discussed with your doctor to ensure they are caused solely by anxiety and not by a medical condition or the side effects of medication.

Yes! Anxiety can cause and aggravate diarrhea and in several ways:

The Stress Response

Anxious behavior activates the stress response, causing many body-wide changes that give the body an emergency “boost” of energy and resources when we believe we could be in danger.

This survival reaction is often referred to as the fight or flight response.[1][2]

Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about the many changes caused by the stress response.

Some of these changes include:

  • Increases blood sugar so that we have an instant boost of energy.
  • Stimulates the nervous system.
  • Shunts blood to parts of the body more vital to survival, such as the brain, arms, legs, and vital organs, and away from parts of the body less vital for survival, such as the stomach, digestive system, and skin.
  • Suppresses digestion and digestive enzymes so that most of the body’s resources are readied to fight or flee.
  • Increases hydrochloric acid to assimilate food already in the digestive system.
  • Reduces saliva since the digestive system is suppressed (saliva aids in the digestive process).
  • Strong urgency to void the bowels so that you don’t have to mid fighting or fleeing.
  • Reduces digestive tract motility.
  • Tightens muscles so that the body is more resilient to damage, including stomach muscles and those associated with the digestive system.

To name a few.

Any one or combination of these changes can impact the digestive system, leading to digestive problems, such as diarrhea.

Many anxious people have digestive problems, such as diarrhea, due to anxiety and stress.

Also, many people experience diarrhea when anxious, frightened, nervous, or stressed.

Diarrhea is a common symptom associated with anxiety and stress.

Hyperstimulation

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the many stress response changes.

However, when stress responses occur too frequently, such as when a person behaves too anxiously, the body can’t complete recovery.

Incomplete recovery can create a state of semi-stress response readiness. We call this state “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are stimulants.

Hyperstimulation is also often referred to as “hyperarousal,” “HPA axis dysfunction,” or “nervous system dysregulation.”[3][4]

Hyperstimulation can cause changes of an active stress response even though a stress response hasn’t been activated.

Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about the many ways hyperstimulation can affect the body and how we feel.

Many anxious people get diarrhea due to hyperstimulation and how it affects the digestive system.

Furthermore, prolonged digestive system disruption, such as from hyperstimulation, can cause persistent digestive system problems, which can lead to chronic diarrhea.

Once the digestive system becomes disrupted, it can take a long time to recover from the flora and digestive system changes.



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Other Factors

Associated with anxiety, there are other factors that can cause and aggravate anxiety symptoms, such as:

Medication

Side effects of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can mimic, cause, or aggravate anxiety symptoms.

Talk with your doctor and pharmacist if you are unsure if your medication is playing a role in your symptoms, including diarrhea.

Recreational Drugs

Many recreational drugs can cause and aggravate anxiety symptoms.

Many recreational drugs also have a profound effect on the nervous system, which can also aggravate existing anxiety symptoms since anxiety can dramatically affect the nervous system.

Stimulants

Stimulants bring about their stimulating effect by causing the secretion of stress hormones and other chemicals into the blood stream, stimulating the body.

Increasing stress hormone secretion can cause and aggravate existing anxiety symptoms since they are fueled by stress hormones.

Sleep Deprivation

Going without adequate sleep can affect the body in many ways, such as:

  • Prevents the body from sufficiently refreshing itself
  • Stresses the nervous system
  • Impairs brain function
  • Increases blood pressure
  • Increases blood sugar
  • Increases moodiness
  • Increases cortisol secretion to compensate for feeling tired (cortisol is a powerful stress hormone)

These effects can cause and aggravate anxiety symptoms.

Low Blood Sugar

Low blood sugar, even if low within the normal range, can cause anxiety-like symptoms and aggravate existing anxiety symptoms.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies, such as low vitamin B and D, to name two, can cause anxiety-like symptoms and aggravate existing anxiety symptoms.

Hormone Changes

Hormones affect the body in many ways. A change in hormones can cause many anxiety-like symptoms, as well as aggravate existing anxiety disorder symptoms.

How To Get Rid Of Anxiety Diarrhea

When diarrhea is caused by other factors, addressing the cause can help alleviate episodes of diarrhea.

When diarrhea is caused by apprehensive behavior and the accompanying stress response changes, anxiety-triggered diarrhea will subside as the stress response ends.

Keep in mind, it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. This is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When diarrhea is caused by hyperstimulation, reducing and eliminating hyperstimulation will reduce and eliminate hyperstimulation-caused diarrhea.

However, eliminating hyperstimulation can take much longer than most people think. It’s common for symptoms of hyperstimulation to linger as long as the body is hyperstimulated.

Furthermore, hyperstimulation can cause multiple types of stomach and digestive problems, which can affect and aggravate each other.

For instance, IBS is often caused and aggravated by anxiety and hyperstimulation. IBS can also trigger episodes of diarrhea.

Nevertheless, eliminating hyperstimulation will eliminate its symptoms, including diarrhea.

You can reduce and eliminate hyperstimulation by:

  • containing worry
  • reducing stress
  • increasing rest
  • regular deep relaxation
  • regular light to moderate exercise
  • regular good sleep
  • eating a diet of whole and natural foods.

Unfortunately, there are NO quick-fix cures for hyperstimulation or its symptoms. Eliminating hyperstimulation requires faithfully practicing your recovery strategies for a long enough period for the body to recover.

But as with all symptoms of hyperstimulation, anxiety-related diarrhea will subside when the body has recovered from hyperstimulation and its effects.

Since worrying, fretting, and becoming emotionally upset about anxiety and hyperstimulation symptoms stress the body, these behaviors aren’t helpful to recovery and symptom elimination.

Passively accepting your symptoms in the short-term — allowing them to persist without reacting to, resisting, worrying about, or fighting them — while faithfully practicing your recovery strategies will bring about their cessation in time.

Acceptance, practice, and patience are key to recovery.

Short-term remedies:

Even though eliminating hyperstimulation will eliminate chronic anxiety-related diarrhea, some people have found the following strategies helpful.

However, keep in mind that each person can have a unique symptom experience since each person is somewhat physically, chemically, psychologically, and emotionally unique. What might work for one person might not for another.

Reduce stress – Since stress, including anxiety-caused stress, is a common cause of diarrhea, reducing stress can reduce episodes of diarrhea. Any stress reduction strategy can help improve this symptom. Visit our article “60 Ways To Reduce Stress And Anxiety” for natural stress reduction strategies.

Recovery Support members can read chapters 4 and 14 for many natural ways to reduce stress and anxiety.

Regular good sleep – Regular good sleep can reduce stress, cortisol, and the body’s overall level of stimulation. Their reduction can reduce and eliminate anxiety symptoms, including diarrhea.

Regular deep relaxation – Deep relaxation can also reduce the body’s overall level of stimulation and stress hormone production, leading to a reduction in anxiety symptoms, including diarrhea.

Contain your anxiousness – Since anxiety activates the stress response, which can cause episodes of diarrhea, containing your anxiousness about this anxiety symptom can help reduce and eliminate it.

The more successful you are in containing your anxiousness, the more opportunity your body has to reduce stress and stimulation. A reduction in stress and stimulation can reduce episodes of diarrhea.

Keep well hydrated – Diarrhea can deplete the body of fluids. If you are having episodes of diarrhea, but sure to keep your body well hydrated.

Over-the-counter medication – If diarrhea is interfering with your normal lifestyle, over-the-counter medications can help stabilize an upset digestive system. For instance, some people have found taking Pepto Bismol helpful in reducing incidences of diarrhea.

Even just knowing you have an effective remedy for diarrhea can help reduce your anxiety about diarrhea, which can also reduce incidences of anxiety-triggered diarrhea.

Therapy

Therapy is the most effective way to eliminate anxiety symptoms since unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors that cause anxiety and stress issues are the number one reason why anxiety disorder and its symptoms persist. [5][6][7]

Dealing with your anxiety issues (Level Two recovery) is the most important work overall if you desire lasting success.

If you have difficulty containing, becoming unafraid of your symptoms, becoming unafraid of the feelings of anxiety, eliminating your symptoms, overcoming your anxiety issues, or have what seems like out-of-control worry, consider connecting with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists.

All of our recommended therapists have personally experienced anxiety disorder and have overcome it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder combined with their Master's Degree and above professional training makes them a good choice when wanting to achieve lasting success over anxiety disorder, its symptoms, and worry.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the best way to attain Level Two recovery success. In many cases, working with an experienced therapist is the only way to overcome stubborn anxiety.

Nutrition Science Practitioner

When stomach and digestive symptoms become chronic, such as chronic episodes of diarrhea, they can upset digestive system flora and function. This upsetness can lead to a host of other digestive system problems and symptoms. In this case, they can be stubborn to turn around without professional help.

Working with a professional Nutrition Science Practitioner, such as Liliana Tosic, might be required.

Moreover, sometimes anxiety-related digestive problems can lead to or trigger other digestive problems, such as leaky gut. Here again, working with a Nutrition Science Practitioner can help you sort this out.

An experienced Nutrition Science Practitioner can be extremely helpful when the digestive system is experiencing chronic problems.

For more information, see Liliana’s article, “Possible Causes Of Diarrhea.”

For instance, a temporary change in diet and eating habits could be all that is required to return an upset digestive system to normal and healthy function.

How common is this symptom? In a recent online poll we conducted, about one-third of respondents said they experienced diarrhea due to their anxiety issues. As you can see, diarrhea is a common symptom of anxiety.



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When To See A Doctor

Even though you have discussed this symptom with your doctor, we recommend seeking immediate medical attention when:

  • Your intermittent diarrhea becomes chronic and persists or gets worse for more than a few days.
  • You have bloody stools.
  • When bowel movements don’t relieve your pain or cramping.
  • You have lost an excessive amount of weight (more than 10 pounds) due to persistent episodes of diarrhea.
  • You are getting sharp pains in the same area that bowel movements don’t alleviate.
  • You begin vomiting for no reason.
  • You find it hard to swallow.
  • You become abnormally fatigued that doesn’t ease up.
  • You have developed a persistent fever over 102 F that lasts more than three days.
  • You experience severe abdominal pain that doesn’t ease up.

Diarrhea Frequently Asked Questions

Can anxiety cause diarrhea?

Yes, anxiety activates the stress response, which causes many body-wide changes, including to the digestive system. These changes can cause incidences of diarrhea. Many people run to the washroom due to diarrhea when they are nervous, such as before speaking or performing at an important event.

Read the “Causes” section on this webpage for more information.

Can diarrhea cause anxiety?

If you are worried about having episodes of diarrhea, especially in inopportune situations, that concern can cause anxiety since worry is a behavior that creates anxiety. Containing that worry can eliminate that anxiety, which can also reduce episodes of anxiety-triggered diarrhea.

Is diarrhea dangerous?

It can be. Diarrhea can deplete the body of fluids and salts, which can contribute to health problems if left for too long. Consequently, you should seek immediate medical attention if diarrhea lasts or worsens for more than a few days.

Can an anxiety attack cause diarrhea?

Yes! Anxiety activates the stress response, causing an immediate urge to void the bowels. The stronger the anxiety, the stronger the stress response, and the stronger the urge to go to the bathroom. Anxiety attacks are a common cause of sudden diarrhea.

Can diarrhea cause an anxiety or panic attack?

It can if you are really worried about having diarrhea, especially in inconvenient or inopportune situations. Worry is a behavior that creates anxiety, and high-degree anxiety can cause anxiety and panic attacks. Therefore, being very concerned about diarrhea can trigger anxiety and panic attacks.

Can a person get diarrhea before a panic attack?

Yes! Panic attacks are high-degree episodes of anxiety. Since milder episodes of anxiety can trigger diarrhea, they can precede higher degrees of anxiety, causing diarrhea (and other symptoms of anxiety) to occur before the actual panic attack.

How to stop diarrhea from anxiety?

Taking an anti-diarrhea over-the-counter medication, such as Imodium and Pepto Bismol, can quickly stop anxiety diarrhea. Reducing your anxiety and calming yourself can also stop anxiety diarrhea, although it might take more time. Overall, addressing your anxiety issues via therapy can resolve anxiety and anxiety diarrhea.

Can anxiety affect your bowels?

Yes. Anxiety activates the stress response, which can affect the digestive system in many ways, such as:

  • Increases hydrochloric acid to speed up processing the food already in the digestive system.
  • Increases the urgency to urinate and vacate the bowels.
  • Tightens muscles, including those that control the digestive system.

To name a few.

Any of these changes can cause digestive symptoms from diarrhea to constipation.

Will Imodium stop anxiety diarrhea?

Yes, Imodium can stop anxiety diarrhea. If you’ve had diarrhea for a while, it’s also recommended to keep your body well hydrated, as diarrhea can quickly reduce body fluids.

How come when I get nervous I have to poop?

Nervousness is a behavior that creates anxiety. Anxiety activates the stress response, which can affect the digestive system in many ways, including:

  • Increases hydrochloric acid to speed up processing the food already in the digestive system, and
  • Increases the urgency to urinate and vacate the bowels.

Whenever a person is anxious, such as being nervous, he can have a strong urge to have a bowel movement.

Can stress trigger diarrhea?

Yes! Stress activates the stress response, which can affect the digestive system in many ways, including:

  • Increases hydrochloric acid to speed up processing the food already in the digestive system, and
  • Increases the urgency to urinate and vacate the bowels.

Consequently, stress can cause episodes of diarrhea.



The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


Additional Resources:


Return to Anxiety Symptoms section.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Anxiety Diarrhea.


REFERENCES:

1. "The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis." DUJS Online. N.p., 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 May 2016.

2. Godoy, Livea, et al. "A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications." Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, 3, July 2018. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00127/full

3. Elbers, Jorina, et al. "Wired for Threat: Clinical Features of Nervous System Dysregulation in 80 Children." Pediatric Neurology, Dec 2018, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0887899418302716

4. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4373764/.

5. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3584580/.

6. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017, jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2654783.

7. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.