Can Stress Cause Diarrhea?

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDMarch 4th, 2021
woman with upset stomach

We’re all aware of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s another health crisis that’s sweeping the United States: stress. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), more than 11% of American adults regularly feel stressed, nervous, or anxious. And in a post-pandemic world, once-carefree activities like going to the salon or navigating a bustling grocery store can become a source of considerable worry.

Stress is known to trigger a long list of physical health effects. One such consequence of frequent stress is diarrhea, a relatively common problem that’s typically associated with viral or bacterial infections and dietary choices. However, it’s possible for anxiety-inducing events or situations to cause diarrhea, especially among people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal issues.

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The Link Between Stress & Diarrhea

The connection between stress and diarrhea is actually quite interesting. The medical community is continuing to learn more about the gut-brain axis, or the relationship between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract (the “gut”). This axis links the central nervous system to the gut’s nervous system, known as the enteric nervous system, which regulates digestive processes. However, the enteric nervous systems’s connection to the brain can act as a highway for chemical messengers to transport stress signals from the brain to the gut. These stress signals can prompt the gut to release hormones that disrupt movement in the small and large intestines, potentially leading to nausea, constipation, or diarrhea. This is also why you may feel “butterflies” in your stomach when you get nervous.

How to Effectively Cope With Stress

Nobody’s perfect—we’re all bound to get stressed out and frazzled every once in a while. However, the steps we take to manage our worries play a key role in the long-term effects stress has on us. Whether your worries are causing gastrointestinal issues or you’re simply tired of feeling so anxious, give these stress management tips a try:

  • Practice self-care by eating nutritious foods, engaging in low-impact exercise, getting enough sleep, and taking the occasional break from responsibilities like work.
  • Avoid your stressors, if possible. For many people, watching the news or going on social media can cause significant stress.
  • Don’t rely on drugs or alcohol to reduce your stress—this may only make things worse or create additional problems.
  • Talk to a friend, family member, or a mental health professional such as a counselor about how you’re feeling.

If your stress is related to the impacts of COVID-19, check out these resources from the CDC.

When To Seek Medical Attention

The majority of people with stress diarrhea do not require professional medical care. However, there are instances when treatment is necessary to prevent or address complications of frequent diarrhea, notably dehydration. Promptly speak with a medical professional if:

  • Your diarrhea lasts for more than one or two days
  • You experience severe stomach or rectal pain
  • Your stool is black or bloody
  • You display signs of dehydration, which may include excessive thirst, dry mouth, weakness, dizziness, little or no urine, and dark-colored urine

It’s also important to seek help if you feel as though stress, anxiety, or depression is taking over your life or making it difficult to find enjoyment in things you once loved. Consider speaking with a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist, or your primary medical provider about how you’re feeling. For immediate assistance in a crisis, call 1-800-273-8255.

In-Home, On-Demand Medical Care from DispatchHealth


Let’s be honest—leaving home when you have diarrhea is less than ideal. The unpleasantness of using public restrooms combined with the ongoing threat of COVID-19 calls for a better care option, which is exactly what DispatchHeath delivers. Our fully equipped medical teams provide on-demand, in-home medical treatment for a wide range of conditions, including diarrhea, dehydration, and mental health concerns like stress and anxiety. We offer these services at a fraction of the cost of an emergency room visit, and at a comparable price as a trip to an urgent care center.

Request care from DispatchHealth today by using our app, going on our website, or giving our friendly professionals a call. Our medical teams are available 365 days a year during extended hours.

The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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