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Alcohol and Mental Health

Anxiety Poops, Anyone? Here's Why They Happen and What To Do About Them

July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 11, 2023
8 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 11, 2023
8 min read

We've all been there: just before that big presentation, we’re hit by a sudden urge to run to the restroom.

It’s not just your imagination! It’s your gut — your “second brain” — reacting to your emotions.

Anxiety sometimes results in an urgent need for the bathroom, an effect colloquially known as "anxiety poops.” Understanding this response, as well as the brain-gut connection, can help us manage it and avoid discomfort or embarrassment.

The Brain-Gut Connection

We're all hosts to an incredibly complex ecosystem in our gut, our intestinal microbiome, which communicates with our brain constantly.

Anxiety or stress can impact our gut health, and conversely, problems in our gut can influence our mood or state of mind. When we're anxious, our brains go into fight-or-flight mode, triggering reactions in the gut. One reaction? Increased bowel movements.

The GI tract isn't just for digesting food. Our gut has its own nervous system, the enteric nervous system (ENS), and it produces about 95% of our serotonin. Serotonin is a crucial neurotransmitter and hormone that affects our mood.

Our bodies, in response to stress, produce serotonin and other hormones which speed up our heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion — all of which contribute to more frequent trips to the bathroom.

Further, this uptick of serotonin in our gut causes spasms throughout our entire colon, which can produce unexpected bowel movements.

When we’re anxious, our vagus nerve — a cranial nerve that carries extensive signals from the gut to the brain — is also activated. This could also contribute to increased activity in the bowels.

Turns out, needing the bathroom before a big stressor is perfectly natural. It’s our body's way of preparing for "danger"— even if that danger is merely a stressful situation.

Having to use the bathroom — or “anxiety poops” — are a physical symptom of anxiety that can cause diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and nausea. When this response is chronic, anxiety poops can be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which can be aggravated by periods of high stress and anxiety.

Harnessing the Power of the Gut-Brain Axis

Understanding the gut-brain axis helps us realize that its unwanted effects on our digestive system are normal.

If you experience these symptoms regularly, here are some steps to take to calm your gut, such as prioritizing calming or relaxing activities.

  1. Balanced eating. Pay attention to what and how you’re eating. Stress eating or consuming foods that irritate the gut can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Healthy diets, rich in fiber and probiotics, can contribute to a happier gut, which can in turn, help manage anxiety.
  2. Ample hydration. Drinking enough water, combined with a balanced diet, works to keep your gut healthy.
  3. Regular exercise: Exercise has been proven to help manage stress levels and improve gut health. It doesn't have to be intense — a simple walk in the park or 15-minute yoga can make a difference.
  4. Mindfulness practices. These practices can help us manage our stress response, reducing our anxiety levels. Mindfulness encourages us to stay present and can significantly improve our emotional well-being.
  5. Good sleep. Lack of sleep can contribute to stress and negatively affect our gut health. Prioritizing good sleep hygiene is essential for managing anxiety.
  6. Cut back on drinking. Alcohol disrupts the gut microbiome, increasing the number of harmful bacteria and decreasing the good. Over time, this can lead to inflammation and an altered immune response, increasing the risk of anxiety and depression.

If anxiety and its GI effects become overwhelming, don't hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional. There are treatments out there — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be incredibly effective in managing anxiety disorders.

It’s also important to speak with a healthcare professional to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

The Takeaway

Anxiety poops happen to the best of us. Remember that taking care of our gut is taking care of our brain! By harnessing the power of the gut-brain axis, we're taking a crucial step towards managing our anxiety and reducing its physical manifestations. Cheers to your health!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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