Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/1/2022
Anxiety can get our stomachs in knots, and sometimes it may feel like it’s doing so literally — and causing some extra symptoms in the process. Anyone whose anxious thoughts have led them to bed or bathroom with stomach pains would fairly wonder whether there’s a connection. Can anxiety cause IBS or diarrhea?
The link would seem to make sense — there’s plenty of amateur biology knowledge that would seem to support this. Nervous pets will sometimes make a new mess for us, and when a snake feels threatened, it will sometimes regurgitate its recent meals. Why wouldn’t we be any different?
Unfortunately, the link between stomach problems and anxiety is a little messier than you’d hope. Let’s flush out some answers, starting with how anxiety and your digestive system interact — if at all.
Anxiety is a mood disorder. While most people may associate the symptoms of anxiety and anxiety disorders most commonly with the mind, the reality is that it can have physiological effects — adverse effects — on your health, as well.
Anxiety can cause chest pain, tense muscles, choking sensations and dizziness. It can give you hot flashes, sweats, insomnia and shortness of breath. These effects of anxiety can disrupt your respiratory system, your cardiovascular system and more.
One of these effects is a suite of gastrointestinal symptoms. Everything from abdominal pain and stomach pain, to discomfort to your digestive tract and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can potentially be affected.
Just because anxiety can negatively affect your digestive tract, though, doesn’t mean it can cause conditions. So what’s the relationship between irritable bowel disease and anxiety?
So can anxiety cause IBS? Well, yes potentially.
According to the National Library of Medicine, the causes of IBS can include life stressors, psychosocial distress and brain-gut interactions — all of which make anxiety one of the potential risk factors for IBS and for changes to your bowel habits.
Now, typically IBS is caused by early life stressors or issues with the gut microbiome, some of which can be caused by illness or antibiotic use.
But this is where things get messy, because the chronic stress associated with mood disorders like generalized anxiety disorder can, over time, erode your health and your immune system.
That’s far from a smoking gun as far as a connection goes, but if you’re wondering whether your significant anxiety issues may have a hand in IBS, we wouldn’t rule them out.
If you’ve been making more rushed trips to the bathroom recently that have coincided with some new sources of anxiety, you may be setting yourself up for some unpleasant bowel movements.
Anxiety can indeed cause diarrhea — it’s one of the listed common symptoms — and the mechanism regarding how this happens is somewhat understood.
Essentially, your stomach and intestines can become upset by sudden spikes in hormones and brain chemicals that can directly affect your gut flora.
Research has also shown that both IBS and anxiety are statistically more common in women than men.
If you’re having bowel symptoms that could indicate IBS or diarrhea and you’re seeing them regularly, you’ll want to seek treatment.
IBS and diarrhea could also signal celiac disease or food intolerance. If you want to stop the increased symptoms of diarrhea and IBS due to anxiety, though, you have to treat the anxiety itself.
There are many ways to do this, but most of them start with a conversation with a healthcare provider.
A healthcare provider is uniquely qualified to help you navigate the variety of anxiety disorder treatments on the market, including medication, therapy and lifestyle changes.
Studies show that therapy can be an effective way of intervening on those negative thoughts and negative patterns of thought sometimes associated with anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, won’t have a direct impact on your inflammatory bowel disease or other chronic condition of the digestive system, but it may help you reduce the additional irritation coming from raised levels of anxiety.
Antidepressant medications may help you regulate certain chemical imbalances that can result in anxiety. These antidepressant drugs affect the serotonin levels in your brain, as well as the levels of other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine (the stress transmitter).
Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common form of antidepressant, but people might also see benefits from other versions like serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).
Hopefully, all of this potty humor has helped you find the humor in a crappy situation. Seriously, one of the most important things you can do with anxiety is learn not to take things so seriously. But what you should always take seriously is your symptoms and your medical treatment.
You are your own best advocate, and whether it comes to the mood disorder or the resulting bowel disorder, getting professional support is key to regaining control over your quality of life.
If you’re struggling with anxiety or any of the symptoms of anxiety, get the support you need. We can help you, whether it be with further resources (to learn about anxiety and other mental disorders) or therapy (via our online counseling) or even with medications through our mental health treatment options.