Anxiety is a mental health condition involving long-term patterns of significant worry, nervousness, or fearfulness. For some people, it can also cause physical symptoms, including diarrhea.

If you tend to get diarrhea around stressful or anxiety-producing situations and events, you’re not alone. It’s fairly common to experience stomach troubles with anxiety.

For some, worrying about having diarrhea in public or in an unfamiliar location adds to existing anxiety. But it’s possible to manage this symptom and reduce its impact on your life. Read on to learn more.

Since the 1940s, researchers have known that stress can trigger intestinal cramping, which can then trigger diarrhea. We now know that this happens due to the connection between your gut and your brain, known as the gut-brain axis.

The axis connects your central nervous system to your enteric nervous system (ENS), which acts as your gut’s nervous system. The ENS helps regulate processes in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. But it also affects your emotions and behavior through its link to your brain.

When you’re stressed, chemical messengers carry signals from your brain to your gut. Your gut sometimes responds to these signals with physical symptoms, including diarrhea, nausea, or constipation.

Everyone experiences stress, which is a typical human response to life’s situations, and everyone may occasionally experience stress diarrhea. However, there’s a difference between stress and anxiety. If you’re experiencing chronic stress for a prolonged period, you may have anxiety. With that, you may experience chronic bouts of diarrhea.

This link works both ways. If you have digestive issues or other GI problems, you might experience psychological symptoms, which can make your digestive symptoms worse.

If you regularly get diarrhea while in distress, it might be worth ruling out irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Many people have both anxiety and IBS. In fact, research consistently suggests that IBS commonly co-occurs with anxiety and depression. In fact, about 60% of people living with anxiety or depression have chronic intestinal issues, such as IBS.

Some experts believe people who develop IBS may have an overly sensitive colon. This sensitivity can increase the chance of GI symptoms when you eat specific foods or experience anxiety or other emotional distress.

Anxiety and stress can also make IBS symptoms worse. In other words, just as you might experience increased GI distress as a result of anxiety, living with IBS can worsen mood and emotional symptoms.

Know the signs

Common symptoms of IBS include:

  • pain and discomfort in your abdomen that doesn’t go away or keeps coming back
  • stomach cramps
  • increased gas
  • diarrhea, constipation, or alternating diarrhea and constipation
  • symptoms that get worse when you smoke, have a lot of caffeine, or eat certain foods, including dairy, red wine, or wheat, among others

If you have these symptoms for 3 months or longer, you could have IBS.

Getting help for anxiety can make a big difference in both mental and physical symptoms. Talking with a mental health professional is a good first step.

A therapist can help you find the treatment that best fits your needs, whether it’s therapy or a combination of therapy and medication. Some people who experience GI symptoms and anxiety or depression find that antidepressants help with both sets of symptoms.

Certain lifestyle changes could also help you manage symptoms of anxiety. Some tips that may be especially helpful for diarrhea and other stomach issues include:

It’s also important to know how to cope with anxiety and stress as you experience it. If you’re working with a therapist, they can help you explore coping methods.

Quick fixes

When you start to feel your stomach knot up (or before you even experience the first twinge), the following strategies can help:

  • Take a few minutes to breathe. Slow, deep breathing can help reduce anxiety and may calm your stomach.
  • Take a short, brisk walk.
  • Try some indoor stretches, yoga, or meditation if you can’t get outside.
  • Take a moment for self-compassion. What would you tell a loved one facing the same stressful situation? Say those same words to yourself.
  • Try a relaxation exercise.
  • Reach out to a loved one. Hearing from someone you care about can remind you of the support in your life and help make difficult situations seem less challenging.
  • Try a grounding technique. If anxiety makes it hard to focus on what’s happening around you, grounding techniques can help calm you and keep you present.

On a larger scale, it may also help to take inventory of your daily tasks, both at home and at work. If they feel overwhelmed, set aside time to go over your responsibilities. Ask yourself if they’re essential or if there’s anything that’s adding unnecessary stress to your life.

Can increased self-care or division of responsibilities reduce your load? Sometimes, taking a careful look at everything you’re dealing with can help you find new ways to address challenges. If possible, involve a trusted co-worker or loved one in the process.

Talking with a medical professional may help if you experience both anxiety and digestive issues, but it’s a good idea to see your healthcare professional if lifestyle changes don’t seem to improve your symptoms.

You should also make an appointment if:

  • Symptoms get worse or don’t go away after several weeks.
  • You get diarrhea during the night.
  • You get diarrhea with a fever.
  • You have bloody stools.
  • Bowel movements and gas don’t relieve your pain or cramping.
  • It’s hard to swallow.
  • You experience unexplained weight loss.
  • You vomit for no clear reason.

A medical professional can help determine what’s causing your symptoms and offer suggestions for treatment, including any dietary changes that may help relieve symptoms.

In addition, if your anxiety significantly affects your quality of life, even without diarrhea, you should seek medical help. For example, see a doctor or mental health professional if you’re experiencing anxiety-related insomnia, serious and unexplained personality changes, other significant physical symptoms like headaches, or you’re noticing that you’re isolating yourself from social interactions.

Feelings of fear and worry can affect your relationships, work, and school in different ways. They might also make it hard to sleep or do the things you’d normally do. Any change that negatively affects your life is worth discussing with a professional.

Concerned about the cost of therapy? Our guide to affordable therapy can help.