If you've ever raced to the bathroom before a big presentation; an upcoming date; or another nerve-wracking event, you're not alone. Worry and nervousness are two symptoms of anxiety, which can sometimes manifest physically—and may even mess with digestion.
Anxiety poop, also known as anxiety diarrhea or nervous poop, can be uncomfortable and hit at inopportune times. To that end, we spoke with holistic psychologists and functional medicine doctors to better understand the reaction and—perhaps more importantly—find ways to help manage it.
What are the symptoms of anxiety poop?
Experiencing an urgency to poop before or after a stressful event is a sign of anxiety-induced poop. Oftentimes, people will acknowledge this physical symptom without connecting it to the accompanying anxious feelings, but holistic psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D., says when it occurs habitually, the two go hand-in-hand.
What causes anxiety poop?
Anxiety poop is a direct result of the gut-brain connection. "This gut-brain axis1 connects our central nervous system to our enteric nervous system located in our gut," Lippman-Barile explains. "The enteric nervous system helps to regulate what is going on in our GI tract and definitely has an effect on our emotions and behavior."
When anxious feelings arise, stress chemicals are released in the brain. The brain then communicates these feelings with the gut, disrupting normal digestion patterns and motility.
More often, this disruption leads to constipation, Trubow says. "But there are some individuals who will have the opposite reaction and will have their bowels loosen up with stress/anxiety."
Could it be a sign of another condition?
According to Lippman-Barile, anxiety poops are extremely common for people with preexisting gut issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, they're not always connected.
"IBS includes a cluster of other symptoms like pain and cramping in the abdomen, diarrhea, changes in bowel movements, and gas and bloating," she says. Anxiety poop, on the other hand, may just mean someone is nervous about a future event. It's how the gut responds to stressful thoughts and feelings.
Anxiety poops won't always lead to chronic digestive issues, either. When stress is properly managed, the symptoms may ease up.
How to manage anxiety poop:
"Managing anxiety poop means managing anxiety," Lippman-Barile says. Deep breathing techniques, yoga, mindful mantras, and meditation may help manage anxious feelings. This will allow the rest of the body—mind and gut—to relax, she adds.
Take a daily probiotic.
Probiotics are gut-friendly bacteria that help support healthy digestion.* When bad bacteria in the gut begins to outweigh the good (aka dysbiosis), introducing a probiotic supplement can help get things back on track.*
"Think of probiotics as your little helpers that restore order and help maintain harmony in your gut ecosystem," Vincent Pedre, M.D., previously told mbg.* Studies have shown high-quality probiotic supplementation may help manage gastrointestinal disorders2, like IBS and diarrhea.
Avoid food intolerances.
Some people find that foods like refined carbohydrates, added sugars, dairy, and gluten may increase inflammation and disrupt gut health. However, these foods will affect everyone differently, so it's important to pay attention to your body's reaction.
"This doesn't mean you need to nix all these foods automatically, and most are fine in moderation," Pedre says. "Pay attention to what foods may be taking a toll on your body, and work with your medical provider to figure out what could make the most sense for your diet."
When should you seek help from a doctor?
It's important to be mindful of how severe and frequent your symptoms are, Lippman-Barile says. Here are a few questions she recommends asking yourself:
- Do you feel pain?
- How intense is your pain?
- Is the pain manageable/unmanageable?
- Do you experience other symptoms associated with IBS like diarrhea/constipation and bloating?
- How severe are these symptoms?
- Are you seeing any blood in the stool?
- Are you losing weight?
- Are your bowel habits an unusual change from your baseline?
These questions can help you assess whether it's time to seek professional assistance. Additionally, if anxiety poops are getting in the way of daily life, it's a good idea to seek out a doctor to rule out more serious GI issues.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.