Stress can cause many physical symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea, cramping, and abdominal pain.
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.
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
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:
A person who experiences stress-induced diarrhea will need to treat the physical symptoms in addition to managing the stress that triggered them.
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.
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.