Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/26/2022
Your anxiety sucks. You know this, we know this and we all know treating it is a constant and evolving work in progress. But lately, you’ve been wondering whether some seemingly unrelated symptoms are attached to your anxious mood. Like, for instance, can anxiety cause diarrhea?
The people who haven’t had episodes of diarrhea due to anxiety before are probably giggling away, but for those anxiety sufferers who have a stomach health issue on their bad days, the panic and poo combo is definitely one you hope is just really bad luck.
Can anxiety cause you to have stress-induced diarrhea? It’s possible, and just one of several gastrointestinal side effects you may have to worry about with severe anxiety symptoms.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get into the worst of it, pull up a stool (heh) and we’ll talk you through this.
Let’s start with something most people don’t think about: the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety is a mental health disorder that can take many forms, including social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and others.
Above all, it’s a fear or uncertainty about future events, specifically in comparison with the present.
Anxiety, essentially, is an engaging of your fight or flight instinct before there’s a reason to fight or flee. Instead of there being a bear in front of you (as in a fear response) the bear is hypothetical — it’s a possibility, not a certainty.
Why does it matter?
Because that fear response can have serious side effects, and when it happens as a result of anxiety, those become symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
While some people may assume anxiety is a mostly mental condition, the physical symptoms are significant.
Physiological symptoms of anxiety may include any of the following:
Increased heart rate
Shortness of breath
Tingling or numbness
Trembling or shaking
That’s already a long list of symptoms resembling everything from a heart attack to a piece of shrimp lodged in your throat at dinner.
On the other hand, anxiety can do other things to your body.
Digestive system symptoms can also occur with anxiety. In addition to nausea, upset stomach, a choking sensation, sweating, dry mouth and other symptoms associated with negative gastrointestinal experiences, you can indeed have a bout of diarrhea.
In fact, research has linked irritable bowel syndrome to psychological and emotional risk factors before — but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
It’s unclear exactly why anxiety affects your bowel movements, but some research has connected anxiety and depression to the relative health of cytokines — proteins responsible, in this case, for healthy bowel function.
A study published in 2013 looked at people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) with depression and anxiety and without depression and anxiety and concluded that the resulting effects of anxiety and depression may increase inflammation and result in exacerbated symptoms of IBS like abdominal pain, digestive issues and acute diarrhea.
In other words, there’s a direct relationship between your anxiety and your bowel health, and while it’s somewhat unclear what’s going on, reducing anxiety should be a priority — for the health of both your mind and your bowels.
Diarrhea can be reduced or prevented entirely by a variety of treatments. We could go into detail on fiber, dietary choices, dairy — you get the picture.
As for general diarrhea, your primary concern should be the loss of fluids and electrolytes associated with ongoing bathroom visits. Consuming diluted fruit juices, products like Pedialyte®, Liquid IV® and Gatorade® is a good way to keep a steady stream of both coming into your body.
Meanwhile, changing up the foods you eat to lessen your fiber intake may help solidify your stool. The following foods are expert recommended for when your diarrhea needs some dietary changes:
Soups and broths
Certain medications that firm your stool or reduce your bowel movements may also help, but you might consider consulting a healthcare provider before taking these, as they can cause complications if your diarrhea is bloody or due to a bacterial infection.
There’s also a fair amount we could say about IBS treatments and what you might want to ask a healthcare provider about. And if you’ve had chronic diarrhea in the past, you may want to talk to a healthcare professional about it regardless of your anxiety.
But treating diarrhea is a little different when it comes to anxiety because diarrhea is a symptom.
With diarrhea due to anxiety, treating the symptom doesn’t fix the actual problem. If your diarrhea is due to anxiety, your long-term treatment lies with getting your anxiety under control.
Treating your anxiety may include certain lifestyle changes.
A healthcare provider might advise that you eat better, skip out on the caffeine for a while, make sure you get a full night’s sleep and even exercise — all of which could improve your health generally and also improve your anxiety.
Anxiety is also conventionally treated either with anxiety medication or therapy — or a combination of both.
Therapy will generally help you learn to manage the onset of moments of anxiety and begin to challenge the thought processes behind those anxious thoughts.
You’ll learn to resist those anxious feelings by learning how to question their authenticity. In the case of anxiety, few of those fears are.
Meanwhile, medication has also been shown to be beneficial to people with anxiety disorders.
Generally, medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other antidepressant medications are considered to be safe and effective in the treatment of anxiety.
Some of these medications may only be available to treat anxiety off-label, which means that while healthcare professionals have seen results from that medication, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved the medication in question as an anxiety treatment.
As a warning, some antidepressants can have gastrointestinal side effects. That’s why it’s so important to make talking to a healthcare professional a part of your treatment journey.
If you find yourself experiencing stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal symptoms during stressful events, or even regularly because of chronic stress, it may be time to face reality.
Your stress-related diarrhea and your mental health conditions may be interlaced — joined in some sort of cruel biological tag team to make your quality of life measurably worse.
Or, they might be completely unrelated occurrences.
The best way to find out is to talk to a healthcare provider about these symptoms. If you do have diarrhea due to anxiety, a healthcare professional can help you treat it.
If it’s unrelated to your diarrhea, they will be able to help you diagnose the source of the problem and find you the right treatment.
Either way, don’t let these problems go unaddressed and don’t wait to talk to someone. For diarrhea, you may want to discuss your options with a healthcare provider (consider our health services if you’re looking for one).
And if you’re ready to do something about your mental health, our online therapy platform is a great place to get started with a consultation with a mental health professional. Starting today is just that easy.