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Stress Diarrhea: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

What is Stress Diarrhea?

Stool can be described as leftover food products that are not able to be absorbed by the body. During the digestion process, the food passes through the digestive tract where the body absorbs all nutrients. The leftover food then passes through the large intestine and to the rectum in the form of stool and is eliminated from the body. If the normal process of digestion gets affected due to any reason then the person may have problems like constipation where he or she finds it difficult to pass stools or diarrhea where the person has loose watery stools at frequent intervals.[1, 2, 3]

In cases of diarrhea, the most likely possibility according to experts is that the food moves a bit too quickly through the digestive system and the body is not able to absorb all nutrients. This results in frequent bouts of loose watery stools. A person may also have diarrhea if the digestive system of the body starts producing extra fluid which passes in the form of loose stools.[1, 2, 3]

The most common cause for diarrhea is an infection in the stomach through bacteria or viruses. There are also certain medications that can cause diarrhea as a side effect. It has also been observed that during periods of extreme stress such as just before declaration of exam results or waiting outside the operation theater waiting for arrival of a newborn people often have an urge to pass bowels and may pass loose watery stools. This is what is termed as Stress Diarrhea.[1, 2, 3]

Stress is the body’s reaction to a perceived threat. Excessive stress is detrimental to the psychological and physical health of a person. Stress Diarrhea is one such effect of stress on the body.[1, 2, 3]

What Causes Stress Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is something which everyone has at one time or the other. It can be caused due to nervousness, medications, food poisoning, allergies, and certain medical conditions. Similarly, stress also has an impact on the gastrointestinal health of a person. The human body is designed to react to perceived threats by invoking certain physical responses.[3]

Scientifically speaking, when the body is under stress, the brain releases a burst of hormones called adrenaline which increases the heart rate and blood pressure. This is termed as a flight or fight response of the body.[3]

The brain also sends distress signals to the gastrointestinal tract through the sympathetic nervous system resulting in a feeling of what is commonly termed as “butterflies in the stomach.” The stomach in response to these signals starts releasing hormones that slow down the digestive process in the small intestine and speeds up the process in the large intestine. The body does this to get rid of any harmful toxins present. This is what results in the person having Stress Diarrhea. Along with diarrhea, the person may also have headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, irritability, and restlessness.[3]

What are the Symptoms of Stress Diarrhea?

A person with Stress Diarrhea will also experience severe abdominal pain and cramping, fecal incontinence. The diarrhea generally resolves once the situation causing stress is addressed and taken care of. In case if diarrhea still persists then there might be an underlying medical condition at play which may require medical attention and hence a consultation with a physician is recommended.[3]

How is Stress Diarrhea Treated?

Treatment for Stress Diarrhea is two-fold. First priority is to treat the diarrhea and then suggest ways to manage and cope with stress in a healthful manner. In majority of the cases, diarrhea caused by stress resolves once the stressful situation is over but it may take a couple of days for the bowels to completely normalize. However, there are certain steps that one can take to aid in the recovery process.[3]

This includes keeping the body as hydrated as possible. This is because loose watery stools drains out plenty of body fluids making the person prone to dehydration which can be detrimental for health. It is best to keep drinking plenty of water, fresh fruit juices, and soups. Another step that is effective to manage Stress Diarrhea is to eat small amount of foods that are easy to digest two to three times a day. Cooked rice mixed with yogurt and pasta are quite effective in speeding up the recovery process.[3]

The person should avoid any kind of spicy food as it can worsen the inflammation in the stomach caused due to diarrhea. Taking over the counter antidiarrhea medications may stop the loose stools; however, these should not be given to children and infants.[3]

Managing Stress: Chronic stress can significantly impact the overall health of a person. Thus managing stress through healthful means is of utmost importance. The best way to manage stress is to first identify the triggers of it. If there are certain situations that makes a person stressed out then avoiding those is best to manage stress. This can be done by keeping a diary of things and situations that increase stress and avoiding those.[3]

Deep breathing exercises are also quite an effective way to deal with stress. This is done by taking in a breath and holding it to the count of 10 and exhaling slowly. Distracting the mind from stress is also quite effective. This can be done by practicing yoga and meditation, spending time with family and friends, and hobbies. They all can alleviate stress.[3]

Additionally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, exercising regularly, and abstaining from excessive alcohol and nicotine use are all healthy ays of managing stress and in turn taking care of Stress Diarrhea. In case if there is no improvement in the stress, then it is recommended to visit a psychologist or psychiatrist for medications and alternative form of treatment to deal with stress and manage Stress Diarrhea.[3]

In conclusion, stress can affect many organ systems of the body and the gastrointestinal system is no exception. It is quite common for an overly stressed individual to have episodes of diarrhea. This is medically termed as Stress Diarrhea. Along with loose and watery stools, Stress Diarrhea may also cause a person to have headaches, increased heart rate and blood pressure.[1, 2, 3]

When a person is under stress, the brain sends signals to the gut which in turn releases a flurry of hormones that speed up the process in the digestion in the large intestine causing the person to have diarrhea. Treatment for Stress Diarrhea is two pronged with one part dealing with diarrhea and the second on ways to cope with stress.[1, 2, 3]

Treatments for both have been discussed in detail above. The most important point however is to stay hydrated throughout the episode to prevent any dehydration that is quite common in people with Stress Diarrhea.[1, 2, 3]


Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:April 21, 2021

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