In 2018, figure skater Adam Rippon made history for two major achievements: 1) winning the bronze medal as part of the figure skating team event, and 2) normalizing anxiety diarrhea. “Embrace your nervous sh*ts,” he said in an Instagram video titled My Two Scents. “Every hour on the hour, I am taking a nervous sh*t until I compete. It’s a cross I have to bear.”
Olympic medals are cool and all, but earning a spot as the unofficial spokesperson for the normalization of anxiety diarrhea? Priceless.
Maybe you’ve never competed in front of millions, but chances are you’ve lived through more than a few terrifying, nerve-wracking, and/or mortifying experiences. Did your digestive system go off the rails at the first sign of something important then too? You’re not alone.
Or if you’ve ever experienced the inverse scenario, screwy digestion that triggers nervous energy. You’re also in good company. Anxiety diarrhea is definitely a thing — here’s why it happens and how to help keep it under control.
Put your bowel first!
Go to the bathroom for release first to make sure it’s not your gut going haywire. If you feel a second bout of anxiety diarrhea coming on, try our management tips (further below).
Thanks to the probiotics trend, you’ve probably heard how our bodies and brains interact as one interconnected unit. Thanks to something called the gut-brain axis, these two organs are particularly close pals with undeniable influence on each other.
When your gut’s enteric nervous system (ENS) gets signals from the brain’s central nervous system, it regulates the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
But when you’re feeling stressed, agitated, annoyed, or scared, these chemical messengers can make your GI tract go wild. Think: diarrhea, nausea, or constipation.
Or it might be the other way around, with your gut sending signals to the brain and causing an emotional whirlwind.
If your mood has been off after a bad bout of digestion, see if these physical symptoms came first:
- stomach cramps
- loss of appetite
- and other unpleasant gut stuff
Gone to the bathroom and still feel on edge? And not keen on the idea of a second or third diarrhea attack? Then let’s strategize on managing your anxiety with these seven tips.
1. Inhale and exhale slowly
It may sound simple, but long, deep breaths can have the double-whammy effect of soothing your nervous system and your digestion.
2. Move around
Try some light stretching, yoga, or even a brisk walk outside to get out of your head and back into your body.
3. Sip some soothing tea
Some people find that herbal concoctions including ingredients like chamomile, peppermint, fennel, and more can settle an upset stomach.
4. Be kind to yourself
It can be easy to go down the slippery slope of self-blame when your body isn’t cooperating or communicating with you the way you’d like. But try to have some compassion for yourself and the body you’re in — you’re doing your best to cope with stress — give yourself some credit and love.
5. Get grounded
Grounding techniques can be a really powerful way to pull away from the running dialogue in your brain and feel fully present. Try putting your hands in water, breathing in a pleasant scent, or listening closely to the surrounding sounds — basically, anything to bring you back down to reality and totally aware of sensations.
6. Eat something easy
The last thing you want to do when your GI tract is acting wonky is to eat a bunch of hard-to-digest foods. Stick with some soft, simple choices like white bread, bananas, and rice until the symptoms pass.
7. Ask for support
At the airport waiting for that big flight or trying to stay calm before a big event? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking out some words of affirmation from a loved one. It’s not vulnerability; it’s validation and everyone could use more of it to feel calm, confident, and centered.
You know how we talked about physical symptoms coming before the psychological? Well, there may be a condition for that. Cases of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which you may have seen in countless TV ads, have been increasing.
While not every stomach issue is IBS, chronically coping with diarrhea that’s linked to some form of mental distress could definitely indicate a condition is at the root of the problem.
Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes IBS — which can cause a lot of the issues related to anxiety diarrhea — but stress and anxiety are known triggers. In fact, IBS commonly co-occurs with anxiety and depression (probably not shocking given what you now know about the gut-brain axis).
There are also some theories suggesting that people who develop IBS may have overly sensitive colons, which increases the chance of GI symptoms from specific foods or emotional experiences.
So again, you’re very likely not imagining things if you feel like your anxiety goes off the charts and then your gut follows suit (or vice versa).
Which came first: anxiety or IBS?
Look at your symptoms over time — if you have diarrhea and/or abdominal pain, discomfort, stomach cramps, etc. for three months or more, you could have IBS and it’s time to talk to a doctor.
1. Find out what’s triggering you
If you notice that your stomach flips out every time you have to talk to your boss, acknowledge that that’s a real anxiety-provoking trigger for you. Triggers are different for everyone, but they’re usually events, emotions, or experiences.
2. Take the time for therapy
Identifying your triggers and finding ways to cope can be a lot to take on all by yourself. Working with a therapist is one way to fast-track the process and get a better handle on your stressors.
3. Put exercise in your routine
Regular workouts can make a big impact in your overall anxiety levels by reducing stress and relieving tension — find some activities you love and start incorporating them into your regular schedule.
4. Keep an eye on what you eat
Some people with IBS, or just occasional digestive dilemmas, find that cutting back on certain foods can help keep symptoms at bay. Some well-known triggers of tummy trouble include dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, and fried foods — try cutting down on these and see how you feel.
5. Consider medication
If you’re in immediate need of some relief, over-the-counter meds like Imodium and Pepto-Bismol can help with diarrhea. And if you’re experiencing chronic IBS symptoms, your doctor may suggest a long-term prescription.
For the most part, anxiety diarrhea is manageable — especially if you know your triggers. Lifestyle and food modifications can soothe immediate troubles, but if this is an ongoing issue, you should call your doctor.
Get on that hotline if…
If your symptoms get worse or don’t go away after several weeks, or you have serious digestive issues not mentioned above, like:
- bloody stools
- unexplained weight loss or vomiting
- difficulty swallowing, etc.
Chances are this isn’t simple anxiety diarrhea.
And if your physical symptoms aren’t that serious, but you feel like you could use some extra help in the emotional or mental department, find a therapist who can help you work through your worries — you might be surprised what a difference emotional support makes for your gut.
Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based journalist, marketing specialist, ghostwriter, and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech.