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Can Anxiety Cause A Loss Of Bowel Control?


A loss of bowel control can be a symptom of anxiety. You may experience this as sudden urges to have a bowel movement, which you can’t resist or control. This urge may be so overwhelming that you may sometimes not make it to the bathroom in time and so may pass stool involuntarily.  This symptom can be associated with other anxiety-induced digestive issues, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 


Why Can Anxiety Cause A Loss Of Bowel Control? 

As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases the stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline and activates the stress response called the fight, flight or freeze response.  

The stress response can trigger the body to eliminate waste, such as stool, as quickly as possible. It achieves this by mobilising the elimination system, which can cause a sudden urge to pass stool. The stress response can also cause muscles to tighten, including those in the abdomen, which can increase your urge to have a bowel movement. Tight muscles as a result of the stress response can also cause temporary muscle control issues, which can include the muscles that control bowel movements. 

Also, if you experience stress and anxiety frequently, you can develop chronic stress, also known as hyperstimulation, which is when your stress response is on high alert for a prolonged period of time, long after the perceived threat has passed. Hyperstimulation can therefore cause the above physical changes to persist for longer, meaning that you frequently experience the symptoms discussed. 


How Can I Stop This Symptom?

As this symptom stems from our fight, flight or freeze response, the main thing that we can do to combat it is to focus on our breathing, adopting anxiety-reducing breathing techniques, such as controlled diaphragmatic breathing or box breathing. This should calm our central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and deactivate our fight, flight or freeze response allowing our rational brain to kick back in and regain a semblance of control and feel the black cloud lift. 

Though this will help short-term, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety and stress occurring in the first place, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety and stress. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.

A loss of bowel control and the other symptoms and conditions mentioned, such as IBS, can also be caused by other factors so talk to your doctor to find the root cause and therefore the best course of action.