Diarrhea, loose or runny stool, abdominal pain, shooting stomach pains and other symptoms associated with diarrhea can be a symptom of anxiety. You might experience these symptoms chronically, or occasionally.
Why Can Anxiety Cause Diarrhea?
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.
Your gut and brain communicate with each other through The Gut-Brain Axis, meaning there is a bidirectional link between the central nervous system (CNS) and the gut’s enteric nervous system (ENS). In other words, how you feel can impact your gut and vice versa. The stress responses can cause changes in the gut and so can aggravate or cause diarrhea.
For example, the stress response suppresses digestion and digestive enzymes as well as causes muscles to tighten, which can include your stomach muscles and other muscles throughout the digestive system. The stress response can also cause you to urgently need the toilet in order to empty your bowels in preparation to “flee” or “fight.”
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 cause prolonged digestive system disruptions, which can lead to chronic diarrhea.
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.
Diarrhea and related symptoms can also be caused by other factors, so talk to your doctor to find the root cause and therefore the best course of action.