Anxiety may affect digestion and the speed at which food travels through the bowels. This can lead to changes in bowel movements and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as chronic diarrhea and constipation.

There is a connection between the gut and the brain, which means changes in mental state can affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and digestive function.

Anxiety may cause changes in the frequency and type of bowel movements, leading to symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation.

This article explains how and why anxiety may affect the bowels and suggests tips for managing anxiety and any related GI symptoms.

A person with anxiety and gastrointestinal symptoms hunched over on a stool.-1Share on Pinterest
Serge Filimonov/Stocksy

Anxiety may cause changes in bowel movements. A 2021 study of Korean high school students found that there was no significant association between chronic diarrhea or constipation and anxiety.

However, both chronic diarrhea and constipation were more common in people with anxiety than in those without.

Anxiety may link to gastrointestinal symptoms, such as:

The GI tract and the brain connect through a network involving the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. People may refer to this connection as the gut-brain axis.

This connection allows the brain to affect the GI tract and the GI tract to affect mood and mental health.

According to a 2020 study, anxiety and stress can alter the motility of the gut, which is the movement of food through the digestive system and out of the body.

The gut is sensitive to stress, anxiety, or other changes in emotional state, which can affect the gut-brain connection and cause changes in bowel movements.

When people experience anxiety, the body releases certain chemicals and hormones. This can affect the GI tract, including disrupting the digestive process and negatively affecting microorganisms, such as bacteria, in the gut.

These factors may cause a range of GI symptoms and changes in bowel movements.

People may find the following tips helpful for relieving and managing bowel changes due to anxiety:

  • Accept any symptoms in the moment and try not to become more anxious about any GI issues, as this may worsen anxiety-related symptoms.
  • Try relaxation techniques before an anxiety-inducing situation, such as deep, slow breathing.
  • Allow time to use the toilet as and when people feel the urge.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which may worsen GI symptoms.
  • Avoid foods that may trigger GI symptoms, such as insoluble fiber, fatty foods, or foods that cause gas.
  • Eat small, regular meals rather than larger ones.

According to a 2019 review, mindful eating may help to improve digestive function and help people better deal with stress and anxiety. Mindful eating can involve:

  • relaxing before eating, such as deep breathing or meditation
  • creating a relaxing, pleasant environment to eat in, such as lighting a candle
  • eating slowly and thoroughly chewing food
  • savoring food and engaging the senses while eating
  • paying attention to signals from the body, such as hunger or fullness

Taking the following steps to manage anxiety may also help to relieve related GI symptoms. A person can:

  • get regular exercise
  • identify and limit triggers that may cause anxiety or changes in bowel movements, such as certain situations or foods
  • use relaxation techniques before a stressful situation, such as deep breathing exercises
  • eat a balanced diet
  • get enough quality sleep and rest

Frequent GI symptoms may indicate an underlying condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Anxiety and other mental health conditions may play a role in causing IBS. Symptoms of IBS include:

  • changes in bowel movements
  • changes in the frequency of bowel movements
  • diarrhea
  • constipation
  • abdominal pain
  • bloating
  • feeling of an unfinished bowel movement
  • mucus in stools

If a person experiences frequent or ongoing bowel problems, a doctor can carry out tests to check for any underlying causes. People should also see a doctor if they have the following symptoms:

Contacting a doctor about anxiety

Frequent or worsening anxiety may indicate an anxiety disorder. People may experience persistent symptoms such as:

Treating anxiety may help relieve GI issues relating to anxiety or other mental health conditions. Treatments can include:

There is a connection between the gut and the brain, which means changes in emotional state, such as anxiety, may affect the GI tract, digestion, and bowel movements.

Anxiety can affect the speed at which food travels through the bowels, which may explain why people can experience an urge to poop when they feel stressed or anxious.

A person may also experience a change in frequency or urgency of bowel movements, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, or nausea. Relaxation techniques and healthy lifestyle factors can help reduce anxiety and related bowel symptoms.