Can stress cause loose stools

Stress diarrhea: Causes, symptoms, and treatments

Stress is a natural bodily reaction to pressure or a perceived threat. A little stress can be a good thing, as it can help motivate a person, focus the mind, and improve performance. However, excessive or chronic stress can affect a person’s psychological and physical health.

Stress can cause a wide range of symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea.

In this article, we outline the causes and symptoms of stress-induced diarrhea. We also provide tips on how to treat diarrhea and manage the stress that can cause it.

Diarrhea is the medical term for loose, watery stools. It is a symptom of an underlying issue rather than a disease in itself.

Some symptoms that may accompany diarrhea include:

  • abdominal pain and cramping
  • an urgent need to empty the bowels
  • loss of bowel control

Diarrhea may be acute or chronic. Acute diarrhea lasts only 1–2 days, whereas chronic diarrhea continues for 4 or more weeks. People who experience chronic diarrhea should consult a doctor to try to determine the underlying cause.

Most people will experience diarrhea at some point throughout their life. Some potential causes of diarrhea include:

  • stress, anxiety, or nervousness
  • certain medications
  • food poisoning or gastroenteritis
  • food intolerances
  • celiac disease
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • overactive thyroid
  • bowel cancer

Causes of stress-induced diarrhea

Stress and anxiety can have a significant effect on the health of a person’s gastrointestinal tract.

The human body has a natural physical response to perceived threats in the environment. When the brain detects a threat, it releases a burst of hormones that increase the heart rate and raise blood pressure. People refer to this process as the “fight or flight” response.

The brain also sends stress signals to the gut via the sympathetic nervous system, which creates the characteristic feeling of butterflies in the stomach.

The gut responds to these signals by releasing its own hormones. These hormones slow movements in the stomach and small intestine, while speeding up movements in the large intestine. The body does this to expel harmful toxins, but the outcome of this process is diarrhea.

If stress is the cause of diarrhea, a person may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • headaches
  • muscle tension
  • tiredness
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • sadness
  • depression
  • sleep problems
  • change in sex drive

A person who experiences stress-induced diarrhea will need to treat the physical symptoms in addition to managing the stress that triggered them.

Treating diarrhea

Most episodes of diarrhea last only a few days and do not require medical treatment. However, the steps below can help alleviate diarrhea and its associated symptoms, aiding a person’s recovery.

  • Keep hydrated: When a person has diarrhea, their small intestine and colon do not absorb minerals and fluids as they should. This dysfunction can result in dehydration. People can boost their hydration by drinking plenty of water and consuming certain fruit juices and soups. Some fruit juices contain much-needed potassium, while soups can replace lost sodium.
  • Eat small amounts of plain carbohydrates: Eating bland carbohydrates, such as cooked rice and pasta, is a useful way of getting fluid into the body. Bland carbohydrates are also easily digestible.
  • Avoid rich or spicy foods: Rich or spicy foods can put additional strain on the digestive system, potentially worsening or prolonging diarrhea.

Over-the-counter medications are available to reduce bowel movement frequency in the early stages of diarrhea. These drugs are not suitable for infants and young children.

Managing stress

Chronic stress can cause serious health problems. However, there are lots of ways to manage stress and build up resilience to the triggers that cause it. People can often do this by:

  • Identifying stress triggers: A person can use a journal to keep a record of their stress and the situations in which it occurs. Once a person has identified their stress triggers, they can take steps to deal with them.
  • Taking small steps to reduce the impact of stress triggers: This may involve practicing a breathing exercise, counting slowly to 10, or taking a temporary break from the stressor.
  • Practicing activities that reduce stress: Simple activities, such as yoga, spending time in nature, and taking a hot bath, can help alleviate stress.
  • Maintaining a healthful lifestyle: This includes eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
  • Avoiding using quick fixes: Alcohol, tobacco, and other substances may temporarily mask the symptoms of stress, but they will cause more harm in the long term.
  • Seeking support from family and friends: Talking through worries and concerns with others can help lighten a person’s mental load. It can also give the person an outside perspective on what is bothering them and how they might deal with it.

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 2 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 the 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 their digestion.

Stress-induced diarrhea usually improves soon after the stressful event that triggered it 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 manage stress and prevent physical symptoms, including diarrhea.

Why It Happens and How to Manage It

Anxiety is a mental health condition that has a wide range of symptoms. It can involve long-term patterns of significant worry, nervousness, or fearfulness. For many people, it can also cause physical symptoms.

If you tend to get diarrhea around stressful or anxiety-producing situations and events, you’re not alone. It’s fairly common to experience stomach troubles with anxiety. For some, worrying about having diarrhea in public or an unfamiliar location adds to existing anxiety.

But it’s possible to manage this symptom and reduce its impact on your life. Read on to learn more.

Diarrhea, along with other digestive problems that often accompany anxiety, can happen because of the connection between your gut and your brain, known as the gut-brain axis.

The axis connects your central nervous system to your enteric nervous system (ENS), which acts as your gut’s nervous system. The ENS helps regulate processes in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. But it also has an effect on your emotions and behavior through its link to your brain.

When you’re distressed, chemical messengers carry signals from your brain to your gut. Your gut sometimes responds to these signals with physical symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, or constipation.

This link works both ways. If you have digestive issues or other GI problems, you might experience psychological symptoms. And having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or related conditions is linked to an increased risk for anxiety and other mood symptoms.

If you regularly get diarrhea while in distress, it might be worth ruling out IBS. This common condition can make you more likely to experience diarrhea when you feel anxious.

Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes it. But anxiety and stress are known triggers for IBS flare-ups.

Some experts believe people who develop IBS may have an overly sensitive colon. This sensitivity can increase the chance you’ll have GI symptoms when you eat specific foods or experience anxiety or other emotional distress.

Many people have both anxiety and IBS. In fact, research consistently suggests that IBS commonly co-occurs with anxiety and depression. Living with either condition can increase your risk for the other and affect symptoms you already have.

In other words, just as you might experience increased GI distress as a result of anxiety, living with IBS can worsen mood and emotional symptoms.

know the signs

Common signs of IBS include:

  • pain and discomfort in your abdomen that doesn’t go away or keeps coming back
  • stomach cramps
  • increased gas
  • diarrhea, constipation, or alternating diarrhea and constipation
  • symptoms that get worse when you smoke, have a lot of caffeine, or eat certain foods, including dairy, red wine, or wheat, among others

If you have these symptoms for three months or longer, you could have IBS.

Getting help for anxiety can make a big difference in both mental and physical symptoms. Talking to a mental health professional is a good first step.

A therapist can help you find the treatment that best fits your needs, whether it’s therapy or a combination of therapy and medication. Some people who experience GI symptoms and anxiety or depression find that antidepressants help with both sets of symptoms.

Certain lifestyle changes could also help you manage symptoms of anxiety. Some tips that may be especially helpful for diarrhea and other stomach issues include:

  • avoiding alcohol and tobacco
  • decreasing caffeine intake
  • staying hydrated
  • eating a balanced diet that includes whole grains, lean protein, and fruits and vegetables
  • getting regular exercise

It’s also important to know how to cope with anxiety and stress as you experience it. If you’re working with a therapist, they can help you explore coping methods.

quick fixes

When you start to feel your stomach knot up (or before you even experience the first twinge), the following strategies can help:

  • Take a few minutes to breathe. Slow, deep breathing can help reduce anxiety and may calm your stomach.
  • Take a short, brisk walk.
  • If you can’t get outside, try some indoor stretches, yoga, or meditation.
  • Take a moment for self-compassion. What would you tell a loved one facing the same stressful situation? Say those same words to yourself.
  • Try a relaxation exercise.
  • Reach out to a loved one. Hearing from someone you care about can remind you of the support in your life and help make difficult situations seem less challenging.
  • Try a grounding technique. If anxiety tends to make it hard to focus on what’s happening around you, grounding techniques can help calm you and keep you present.

On a larger scale, it may also help to take inventory of your daily tasks, both at home and at work. If they feel overwhelming, set aside time to go over your responsibilities. Ask yourself if they’re essential, or if there’s anything that’s adding unnecessary stress to your life.

Can increased self-care or division of responsibilities reduce your load? Sometimes, taking a careful look at everything you’re dealing with can help you find new ways to address challenges. If possible, involve a trusted co-worker or loved one in the process.

Talking to a medical professional may help if you experience both anxiety and digestive issues, but it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider if lifestyle changes don’t seem to improve your symptoms.

You may also want to make an appointment if:

  • symptoms get worse or don’t go away after several weeks
  • you get diarrhea during the night
  • you have bloody stools
  • bowel movements and gas don’t relieve your pain or cramping
  • it’s hard to swallow
  • you experience weight loss
  • you vomit for no clear reason

A medical professional can help determine what’s causing your symptoms and offer suggestions for treatment, including any dietary changes that may help relieve symptoms.

Talking to a therapist is recommended if any symptoms negatively affect your quality of life. For example, feelings of fear and worry may affect your relationships, work, and school. They might also make it hard to sleep or do the things you’d normally do.

Concerned about the cost of therapy? Our guide to affordable therapy can help.

Diarrhea and stress: why diarrhea occurs with nervous tension

Author, editor and medical expert - Klimovich Elina Valerievna.

Editor and medical expert - Harutyunyan Mariam Harutyunovna.

Views: 591 571

Last update date: 10.10.2022

Average reading time: 7 minutes


Why is the intestines irritated?
Treatment and prevention of psychogenic diarrhea

Rumbling, abdominal cramps and loose stools on the eve of an important event are extremely unpleasant symptoms that can knock the ground out from under anyone's feet. This is due to stress, which triggers a whole chain of reactions in the body, leading to functional disorders in the digestive system. How to treat diarrhea due to nerves and how to prevent its occurrence - about this in the article.

Ancient doctors-philosophers spoke about the relationship between body and soul. Cicero, who is considered to be the father of psychosomatics, expressed well-reasoned judgments about the influence of strong nervous shocks on human health 1 . Today, the existence of psychosomatic disorders has been proven, and they are included in the international classification of diseases. Among them is irritable bowel syndrome, one of the manifestations of which is nervous diarrhea.

Top of page

Why does the bowel irritate?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects both men and women equally. Most often, nervous bowel disorder occurs in residents of cities 2 with a busy rhythm of life and frequent stress.

Emotional instability becomes the basis for the occurrence of the syndrome. An irresistible urge to empty the bowels, ending in loose stools, may be preceded not only by anxiety, fear, or a feeling of sadness and longing, but also by intense positive emotions. From a physiological point of view, they are also stressful.

Nervous tension causes the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones: cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. Under their influence, the body adapts to the new environment: the frequency of contractions of the heart and breathing increases, the pupils expand, thought processes and muscle reactions accelerate. However, the reaction may be excessive 3 . In particular, stress can provoke disturbances in intestinal motility 3.4 . With the accelerated promotion of intestinal contents, the reverse absorption of water and electrolytes is disrupted, resulting in loose stools.

The main manifestations of psychogenic diarrhea:

  • sudden, irresistible urge to defecate, arising against the background of emotional stress;
  • diarrhea more than 3 times a day;
  • usual stool volume, average 200 ml per day;
  • no episodes of diarrhea during night rest;
  • loud rumbling, discomfort or migratory abdominal pain preceding a bowel movement;
  • loose, mushy or watery stools free from mucus, blood, undigested food and fat;
  • alternating diarrhea with constipation, ending in the release of a small amount of hard lumpy feces, a feeling of incomplete emptying of the intestines.

Important! With IBS, there are no infectious and organic diseases of the intestines and other organs of the digestive system. Therefore, before taking any measures to combat diarrhea, you need to consult a doctor and undergo an examination that is due in this case.

Up to content

Treatment and prevention of psychogenic diarrhea

Psychogenic diarrhea usually occurs against the background of chronic stress, neurotic disorders, depressive conditions and exacerbates the situation by its appearance. The suddenness of an irresistible urge to defecate and the realization that the process is uncontrollable increase anxiety, increase nervous tension and complete the vicious circle of the disease.

Treatment of IBS and its symptom, nervous diarrhea, includes the following methods.

1. Psychotherapy

The basis of treatment is non-drug methods of influence. First you need to find and understand the psychological problem that leads to diarrhea. Therefore, the treatment of nervous diarrhea should include work with a psychologist or psychotherapist, psychotherapy sessions, and possibly taking psychotropic drugs: anxiolytics (drugs that reduce anxiety) and antidepressants 1 . Reducing the level of anxiety will help not only solve the problem of neurogenic diarrhea, but also eliminate many other troubles associated with the emotional background.

2. Organization of work and rest regime

In order to reduce the level of stress, it is important:

  • adhere to the daily routine;
  • alternate work with rest, mental load with physical;
  • sleep at least 8 hours a day;
  • be outdoors for at least 2 hours a day - oxygen is necessary for the normal functioning of the brain;
  • exercise.
3. Diet

Neurosis and neurogenic diarrhea - a reason to reconsider nutrition. Experts advise eating less foods containing lactose, fructose, sweeteners, gluten, caffeine, polyols (polyhydric alcohols), legumes 5 . It is advisable to exclude poorly tolerated foods and alcohol, reduce the consumption of fatty, fried, spicy, smoked foods. It is recommended to eat more cheeses such as feta and brie, bananas, blueberries, melons, grapefruits, kiwis, lemons, limes, oranges and strawberries 5 . Also useful are eggplants, olives, potatoes, nuts, and protein foods in general 5 .


Doctors prescribe exercise therapy, massage, reflexology, phytotherapy and balneotherapy in order to correct intestinal motor activity and normalize the psychological state.

5. Drug therapy

Antidiarrheal drugs based on loperamide 2 are used to treat diarrhea, for example IMODIUM® Express 6 . Loperamide slows down intestinal motility and the movement of feces through it, promotes the reabsorption of water and electrolytes 7 . This leads to hardening of the stool and helps control bowel movements. The effect of the drug may last up to 4-6 hours 6. 7 .

If "nervous" diarrhea is accompanied by pain, the doctor may recommend taking antispasmodics 2 .

Prolonged bowel dysfunction leads to dysbacteriosis, in which case treatment includes pro- and prebiotics.

Despite a chronic relapsing course, psychogenic diarrhea is not a life-threatening disease 2 . It does not increase the risk of inflammatory diseases and bowel cancer 2 - this is important to understand in order to remain optimistic during treatment, which can be quite lengthy.

The information in this article is for reference only and does not replace professional medical advice. For diagnosis and treatment, contact a qualified specialist.

See also:

  • Bear disease

Diarrhea with stress and neurosis

Before the holidays, you were nervous: running after gifts, preparing a feast, general cleaning, time pressure at work .

.. And at the beginning of the year you broke your usual diet, overate, indulged in pickles and alcohol. And the stomach began to rebel - there was an irritable bowel syndrome. How to calm him down?

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  • Irritable bowel symptoms
  • Diarrhea with severe stress
  • Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome

Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome

Tortured intestines. Now diarrhea, then constipation. And pain in the stomach, as if in contractions. Even I did a colonoscopy - but, fortunately, everything turned out to be in order. The doctor suggested that it was a syndrome irritated bowel. What are the symptoms of this disease?

There are a number of signs that indicate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects between 15 and 48% population. Among the most common are pain, rumbling and cramps in the abdomen, problems with stool (diarrhea or constipation, and more often their alternation), increased gas formation (flatulence). Sometimes there are also atypical complaints - for example, headaches and rapid urination.

Most often, the "drum concerto with orchestra" is played in the stomach in the evenings, and especially after eating gas-forming food (fresh vegetables and fruits, black bread). After a bowel movement symptoms usually subside. Emotional shocks, anxieties and worries often lead to exacerbations. AND, finally, an important point - by morning the pain and discomfort usually disappear. If the stomach aches in the morning no less than in the evening, then this, most likely, does not speak of a functional disorder, but of some more serious diagnosis.

Under no circumstances should severe pain in the abdomen, with which unable to cope with antispasmodics. After all, such a sign may hide a life-threatening surgical pathology requiring urgent surgery (for example, acute appendicitis, cholecystitis or pancreatitis). In such situation, you need to call an ambulance.

However, even if the clinical picture fully matches this description, a diagnosis such as IBS can be made only after examination, which will show that there is nothing more dangerous. If there are no changes in the mucous membrane, and discomfort persists in the intestines for more than three months, and the stomach catches at least three times a week, then doctor has the right to talk about the presence of this very syndrome.

Diarrhea with severe stress

I noticed that when I get nervous, I immediately get diarrhea. First time this happened to me still in school, before final exams. Since then, any stress or even just strong excitement leads to what makes me weak. Before my own wedding, sorry for the detail, I didn’t get out of the toilet.

How to explain such a strange relationship?

Not only malnutrition, dysbacteriosis and physical inactivity are dangerous for intestines. In 80% of cases, functional disorders of this organ occur due to stress. No wonder this the disorder is also called "intestinal neurosis".

The functional disorders of the gastrointestinal tract that develop in this case can be explained by a violation interactions between the digestive and nervous systems. After all, our intestines have their own regulatory mechanism, it is autonomous from the central nervous system, but is part of the autonomic nervous system systems. The operation of this mechanism is controlled by the brain (by the way, the amygdala, located in this organ, is responsible for both the response to stress and intestinal motility). The brain sends signals to emptying, and the intestines in response report on the fulfillment of the order. But under stress from the brain the wrong signals are already coming in, to which the intestines respond with pain.

Unsurprisingly, people suffer most from stomach problems emotional, with increased anxiety and low stress resistance. No wonder such a diagnosis like irritable bowel syndrome, women are given 4 times more often than men, because they are usually more acute perceive everything that happens. But in general, this malaise is more typical for young and middle-aged people. ages engaged primarily in intellectual work.

Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome

Is it true that there is no cure for irritable bowel syndrome? And if so, why do doctors prescribe different pills? And without that, there is a lot of chemistry in our body!

Unfortunately, there really is no specific treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. You can only fight with symptoms. Nonetheless, consult a gastroenterologist and, if necessary, to be treated. After all, an unstable chair not only significantly reduces the quality life, but also leads to overload of the large intestine, increasing the risk of hemorrhoids, anal fissures, fistulas and other proctological diseases.

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