Experts Explain Why Your Anxiety Makes You Stress Poop
Your nerves are affecting your body more than you think.
While 2020 was a year that was filled with stress and anxiety due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and racial injustices, unfortunately, 2021 will be just as stressful for the time being. But while you may already know how stress and anxiety can affect your mental health, did you know that your anxiety can actually cause physical symptoms to occur? That's where stress pooping comes in.
According to a 2014 study, psychological stress can impact one's gut health, which could explain why you feel the urge to go to the bathroom when you get nervous. Some of the stress-associated gastrointestinal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits.
But how exactly does anxiety make you poop, and what are some ways you can prevent anxiety diarrhea from happening? We chatted with a few experts to get some answers.
How does anxiety cause diarrhea?
According to Healthline, anxiety can cause diarrhea because of the "connection between your gut and your brain," which is also known as the gut-brain axis. The website states that this axis connects your central nervous system (CNS) to your enteric nervous system (ENS), which helps regulate the processes in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract that affect your emotions and behaviors. So when stress or anxiety occurs and your brain sends these signals to your gut, it can react with physical symptoms, like nausea or diarrhea.
"We all know that sometimes stress and anxiety might manifest in the gut," Jill Deutsch, director of the Yale Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Program, tells HelloGiggles. "And for some people these are once-in-a-while symptoms, but for others, GI manifestations of pain and altered bowel habits are a regular occurrence." According to Deutsch, these symptoms might fall under the umbrella of irritable bowel syndrome, otherwise known as IBS, which is a common disorder that affects the large intestine. "This is characterized by abdominal pain and change in bowel habits, either constipation or diarrhea, that typically (at least partially) relieves their pain," she says.
How to stop anxiety-induced diarrhea:
Have uncomfortable conversations with your doctor.
Talking about bowel movements isn't easy, but having a 10-minute awkward conversation with your doctor will save you future discomfort. "Things that should be brought to the attention of your doctor are a family history of GI diseases, bleeding, nausea or vomiting, weight loss, and bowel movements that wake you up from sleep," says Deutsch.
Talk to medical professionals.
Bottling up stress isn't healthy. And one of the ways you can reduce stress is by talking to your medical provider or making an appointment with a mental health professional to dissect what is really going on. "It is very interesting to know that, oftentimes, we can trace back the origins of these GI symptoms to traumatic life events or the culmination of someone's psychology into who they are now," says Deutsch. In other words, Deutsch says we can treat our GI symptoms through behavioral interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy and hypnotherapy, as these can "help people to critically think about how the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety might lead to GI symptoms and then how those symptoms can perpetuate stress and anxiety," Deutsch adds. "Behavioral interventions work so well for people with IBS, but we are only touching on the tip of the iceberg in this field."
The focus is on eating better, not perfectly. Processed food or foods high in non-healthy fats or sugars seem to make stress worse for some people. This is because when your blood level crashes or you consume bad cholesterol, your anxiety can be triggered or other mental health issues can flare up. An article from Harvard Health Publishing recommends a diet rich in lean protein, fruits, and vegetables to help you feel (and poop) better. Ask your health professional if adding more fiber to your diet will help.
Move your body.
Take a walk or do some stretches while your dinner heats up in the microwave. Getting consistently active will help both your anxiety and your gut health. According to a Harvard Health Publishing article, movement can decrease muscle tension, change brain chemistry to increase serotonin, and activate the frontal regions of the brain, which helps control the amygdala, the system that helps you know when or when not to react to life-threatening or lesser anxiety-filled events.
Take mental breaks and turn off your phone.
Resist the urge to check your phone when you're standing in line or waiting for a doctor's appointment, Janice Presser, relationship consultant and Ph.D. systems scientist at Teaming Science, says. Allowing your brain time to rest and recover can help clear your mind.
Meditation can also help maintain a feeling of calm. Candy Washington, a mental health advocate, tells HelloGiggles, "Be mindful of the content that you consume. This means turning off the television, unplugging from social media, and staying away from people who constantly speak negatively. The main thing to do is to focus on the things that you can control while protecting your energy and space. Be gentle with yourself during this process, surround yourself with support, and avoid crowds."
Small changes can make a big impact.
The pandemic has changed the lives of millions of people, so it's normal to feel stressed right now. While there's so much we can't control, you may want to find small pleasures in the things you can control. You can learn a new language, tackle your reading list, journal, or work on your craft. Taking time to do things that make you happy will make you and your stomach feel better.
"One trick that I teach my patients, even the first time I meet them, is diaphragmatic breathing, a technique where the large muscle, which separates the chest and abdomen, works to expand the lungs," Deutsch says. "Science shows us that diaphragmatic breathing helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, our 'rest and digest,' and actually slows down the heart rate, which, in turn, can turn off the vicious [anxiety] cycle."
Be kind to yourself.
For many people, anxiety can start (or be made worse) by the way they talk to themselves. Practice self-kindness and keep track of negative thoughts to see how often you worry about things that are out of your control. If you find yourself crossing the line into obsessing over a problem, try to follow a negative thought with a solution. You can follow a thought like, "I shouldn't apply for this job, they'll never hire me" with "I won't know what I'm capable of until I try."
Remember: "No" is a complete sentence.
All the same, no one can do everything. Saying "no" is your prerogative. You don't owe anyone an explanation, so try to resist the urge to offer one. An easy "I can't, I'm busy" is all that's necessary.
When is it okay to worry about your upset stomach?
It's important to note—according to Digestive Health Centers, a Texas medical practice specializing in intestinal and stomach health—that if you're experiencing any of the symptoms below, you should call a doctor immediately:
- Trouble breathing or swallowing
- Diarrhea that lasts for more than two days
- Frequent vomiting or vomit that looks like it contains blood or coffee grounds
- Pain in your chest, neck, jaw, or arm
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bloody or black stools