Can’t Stop Pooping? You Might Have a Case of Stress Diarrhea (Which Can Totally Be Solved, BTW)

Photo: Getty Images/Svetikd
There's no other way to say it—life is stressful. On any given day, you could be worried about chipping away at that massive to-do list, freaking out about finding a new apartment, or ruminating on that fight you had with your partner the other day that's definitely not resolved. In the midst of all this stressing...your stomach starts to rumble. And next thing you know, you're running to the bathroom.

But wait, can stress cause diarrhea? Sure can. It's zero percent fun, but 100 percent definitely a thing. Our brains and stomachs are very closely connected through a series of nerves (aka the gut-brain connection), meaning when we're stressed or anxious, our brain can send signals that change the movement of our bowels.

Experts In This Article
  • Kiki Fehling, PhD, licensed psychologist in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Roshini Raj, MD, board-certified gastroenterologist, associate professor of medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, author of Gut Renovation, and co-founder of YayDay digestive supplements

While it isn't a huge deal if it happens once in a while, stress diarrhea that lingers is worth getting to the bottom of. Here's why you're getting the nervous poops and what you can do to get rid of them.

Why can stress cause diarrhea?

Being stressed or anxious can trigger some unpleasant gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, including diarrhea. In fact, one study in Medicine1 found around a quarter of people with anxiety had chronic loose stools.

Here's why: Your GI and central nervous systems are directly connected via a pathway called the gut-brain axis and are "constantly in a two-way conversation," says Roshini Raj, MD, a gastroenterologist and founder of YayDay.

When the tension starts to run high, your brain releases neurotransmitters to activate your body's fight-or-flight response, which helps you escape threatening situations. Once these alarm bells start going off, "there is a chain of physiological events that affects your entire body. Your gut is one of the systems affected," explains Kiki Fehling, PhD, a clinical psychologist from Boston, Massachusetts. The result? Butterflies in your stomach or some queasiness, or even diarrhea or vomiting.

Risk factors for stress-related diarrhea

Anyone can get an occasional case of loose stools or diarrhea from stress. But you'll likely be more prone to stress poops if you also have an underlying GI condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). "People who have IBS often have a heightened sensitivity to stress and find that their digestive symptoms worsen when anxious," says Dr. Raj.

In fact, negative emotions like anxiety or depression may actually trigger or worsen gut inflammation that exacerbates stress IBS symptoms—diarrhea included, suggests July 2013 research in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine2.

Other physical symptoms caused by stress

Sky-high stress can obviously make you feel lousy in all kinds of ways that go way beyond your stomach. Here are some other symptoms you might be feeling, thanks to your body's stress response, per the National Library of Medicine (NLM):

  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Sweating
  • Chills
  • Nausea
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Tingling or numbness in your arms or legs
  • Weakness
  • Tense or rigid muscles
  • Dry mouth

Other signs of stress could be cognitive, too, including anxious or racing thoughts, low self-esteem, and more.

How long does stress diarrhea last?

There's no official timeline here, but the occasional bout of anxiety-induced diarrhea shouldn't go on for too long.

"Although chronic stress can cause chronic diarrhea, if your diarrhea is new or lasts for more than a few days, it's good to be checked out for other causes," says Dr. Raj.

It could be an underlying food intolerance/sensitivity or another GI issue that's actually messing with your stomach, for instance.

If another GI issue is to blame, you may have other digestive symptoms, too, like bloating, gas, or abdominal pain. If this is the case, talk to your doctor, who can run tests to determine the underlying cause.

How to stop stress diarrhea

Managing stress-induced diarrhea mostly comes down to managing stress itself. (More on that in a few.) That said, if you're feeling keyed up in the moment and your stomach is starting to rumble, here are a few relaxation techniques and remedies to stop nervous poops in their tracks:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: This stress-relieving exercise involves tensing and releasing the muscles throughout your body. "It helps deactivate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka, your stress response) and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (aka, your relaxation response)," says Dr. Fehling. Here's a quick video where she walks you through how to do it.
  • Paced breathing: Like progressive muscle relaxation, taking slow, deep breaths can help calm your body's stress response and soothe those physical anxiety symptoms, per a January 2023 review in Nature3. Walk through Dr. Fehling's favorite deep-breathing exercise here.
  • OTC anti-diarrheal medicine: Taking medications like loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol) can also help if you need to stop diarrhea fast and stress-management techniques alone aren't cutting it.
  • Watch what you eat and drink: Stick to bland, low-fiber foods (like toast, crackers, or bananas) until your symptoms ease up. Try to avoid anything that will make your diarrhea worse, like fried or greasy foods, high-fiber foods like beans or broccoli, and alcohol or caffeine, per the NLM.

How to prevent stress-related diarrhea

Prevention all comes down to managing your psychological stress, (i.e., whatever's getting you worked up). "To prevent stress-induced diarrhea, you want to prevent stress," says Dr. Fehling.

There are plenty of ways to do that, so experiment to see what makes you feel good. Some solid stress-management options to try include the following:

  • Relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation: Both are proven stress busters, and have been shown to have a positive effect on IBS symptoms like diarrhea, according to an April 2015 study in PLOS One4You could also try going for a walk or run (just watch out for those post-run poops).
  • Get enough sleep: Stressful situations (anything from a looming work deadline to being stuck on hold for a ridiculously long time) are always harder to deal with when you're exhausted, Dr. Fehling points out.
  • Try a Mediterranean-style diet: This eating pattern is linked to lower rates of depression and has been shown to have a positive effect on gut health, according to an August 2019 review in Current Opinions in Behavioral Sciences5. Try to add things like whole grains, loads of fruits and veggies, beans, nuts and seeds, healthy fats, and some seafood to your weekly meals.
  • Talk with a therapist: If your stress and anxiety is seriously disrupting your life, talking it out with a mental health professional can be helpful. They can also teach you coping strategies that can help you relax your body and mind. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular—where you replace negative thinking patterns with ones that are more rational or realistic—is the gold standard for managing anxiety, per Harvard Health Publishing.

When to see a doctor

Unfortunately, stress affects gut health in a number of ways. While a sense of urgency to poop from time to time is okay, diarrhea that's worsening, persistent, or comes with abdominal pain should be brought up to your doctor.

"If you find it happening so often that it's affecting your quality of life, it could hint at a larger digestive issue," says Dr. Raj. It could also be a sign that your stress or anxiety levels are too high and you need help managing them. And either way, your doctor can run tests (like stool samples, bloodwork, CT scans, or a colonoscopy) to help you figure out the underlying cause of persistent diarrhea, and treat it properly.


How do I know if my diarrhea is from stress?

It's hard to say for sure, because diarrhea can be caused by many things (think: a stomach bug, food poisoning, certain medications, a food sensitivity or intolerance, IBS, or inflammatory bowel disease, just to name a few). That said, if your poop problem tends to happen during tense moments when you're also feeling other physical symptoms of anxiety (like shaking, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations), that's a sign your diarrhea could be related to your stress levels.

Can stress lead to constipation?

Yep, it can. While stress gives some people diarrhea, "stress hormones can also cause the digestive system to go into a state of shock. So some people become very constipated when they are stressed," says Dr. Raj. If this is the case for you, try things like drinking tea, going for a walk, or eating foods with more fiber, along with managing your stress levels.

Can stress cause colon problems?

There isn't much evidence that connects stress to severe colon problems like colon cancer. But that doesn't mean that over time, things like anxiety, chronic stress, or depression don't have some kind of effect on your gut. In fact, according to the Current Opinions in Behavioral Sciences review noted above, stress can trigger increased inflammation in the gut and change the composition of your gut microbiome, which, over time, could have an effect on your colon health.

If you're concerned about your colon health, talk to your doctor. They can schedule certain tests to rule out things like colon cancer.

—reviewed by Jennifer Logan, MD, MPH

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Kim JY, Lim MH. Psychological factors to predict chronic diarrhea and constipation in Korean high school students. Medicine (Baltimore). 2021 Jul 9;100(27):e26442. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000026442. PMID: 34232176; PMCID: PMC8270581.
  2. Gao J. Correlation between anxiety-depression status and cytokines in diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome. Exp Ther Med. 2013 Jul;6(1):93-96. doi: 10.3892/etm.2013.1101. Epub 2013 May 8. PMID: 23935726; PMCID: PMC3735566.
  3. Fincham GW, Strauss C, Montero-Marin J, Cavanagh K. Effect of breathwork on stress and mental health: A meta-analysis of randomised-controlled trials. Sci Rep. 2023 Jan 9;13(1):432. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-27247-y. PMID: 36624160; PMCID: PMC9828383.
  4. Kuo B, Bhasin M, Jacquart J, Scult MA, Slipp L, Riklin EI, Lepoutre V, Comosa N, Norton BA, Dassatti A, Rosenblum J, Thurler AH, Surjanhata BC, Hasheminejad NN, Kagan L, Slawsby E, Rao SR, Macklin EA, Fricchione GL, Benson H, Libermann TA, Korzenik J, Denninger JW. Genomic and clinical effects associated with a relaxation response mind-body intervention in patients with irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. PLoS One. 2015 Apr 30;10(4):e0123861. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0123861. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2017 Feb 21;12 (2):e0172872. PMID: 25927528; PMCID: PMC4415769.
  5. Madison A, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human-bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. 2019 Aug;28:105-110. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011. Epub 2019 Mar 25. PMID: 32395568; PMCID: PMC7213601.

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