Can Stress or Anxiety Cause Constipation or Bloating?

Stress and ConstipationThe human body can at times be a very delicate mechanism, which can easily be upset if there is any change in routine, or if the person faces an inordinate amount of stress or anxiety.

Our digestive system is deeply linked with our brain and if we are under stress or are going through a period of anxiety or depression, then it will have a negative impact on the regularity and the duration of our bowel movements.

In such situations, consuming extra fiber, fluids or laxatives can exacerbate the situation rather than alleviate it, causing you more stress than what you are actually going through! You need not worry however, as the secret of breaking through this vicious cycle has been revealed in this article! However, before we dive into the solution, it is important to first understand the subtle relationships between our mental health and the ease of doing our morning ablutions!

What is Stress?

Before we understand the affect stress has on our bowel movements, it is important to first understand what stress actually means. Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.

It can be brought on by anything that disrupts your regular routine, such as an argument with your significant other, or if your supervisor or colleagues criticize your work, or if your in-laws are in town.

Your central nervous system interprets the stimuli caused by stress as an impending attack on your physical body, and in turn activates the in-built “fight-or-flight mechanism”. This in turn makes any one or all of the following changes in your body:

  • Your heart starts beating faster
  • Your blood pressure rises
  • You take short and rapid breaths. In extreme cases you may even start hyperventilating[1]!
  • Your immune system gets compromised, which increases inflammation within your body and reduces your overall health
  • Your muscles becomes more tense
  • You are more alert
  • Your digestion is adversely affected as the production of digestive juices necessary to break down the food you have ingested slows down significantly, which can lead to indigestion and constipation

The main purpose of the “fight-or-flight” mechanism is to divert blood-flow to your appendages that are critical for your survival (such as your arms and your legs) from something that is deemed unnecessary for your immediate survival, such as your digestive system. Well, to be perfectly fair, imagine yourself as a caveman in the year 10000 B.C. and you are being chased by a pack of wolves. Probably not the best time to pass a bowel movement now, is it?

So when blood flow is diverted away from your digestive system, the entire process of nutrient absorption and stool formation slows down significantly, which would obviously cause you to be bloated and constipated.

If you are under chronic stress, your central nervous system will continuously interpret that as you being under constant physical threat and the continued slow movement in your gut will translate into your constipation becoming a chronic condition as well, causing you physical and mental duress.

Chronic long term stress alters nerve pathways and also interferes with the delicate hormonal balance, which may manifest as other health issues.

Stress Induced Constipation

As mentioned in the previous section, although stress is a psychological factor that can cause your digestive system to slow down, it may not always translate into a slower bowel movement.

It is more dependent upon what the default problem of your digestive system actually is. If you tend to get constipated, every time your digestive system is disturbed, then yes, stress will cause you to be constipated. However, on the other hand, if you tend to suffer from loose motions while your digestive system is under duress, then stress may result in diarrhea as well!

As with anything else related to the human body, the relationship between stress and constipation is very intricate and can be summarized under the following points:

  • If you undergo chronic ‘low-level’ of stress or anxiety, it suppresses the gastrocolic reflex[2] which in turn stops you from passing stool. This can be brought on by a lot of different things, such as constantly being under pressure with tight deadlines or just a busy schedule. Ever had a situation where you felt like you just had to go, but once you saw that your only option is a filthy hole in the ground, and all of a sudden you felt like you didn’t have to? The state of the available facilities caused a low-level stress which suppressed the gastrocolic reflex! This is not good for you because improper bowel habits tend to harden your stool, which cause a physical strain on your digestive tract. In the long-term, it can cause internal hemorrhoids and anorectal nerve damage.
  • If you are in a ‘moderately stressful’ situation like getting married, taking your final exams, appearing for a job interview etc., then your body naturally suppresses your urge for a bowel movement. However, this is not as worrying because ‘moderately stressful’ situations are usually temporary and the constipation usually goes away a few hours or days after the situation is resolved!
  • A traumatic situation such as sexual or physical abuse, or the loss of a parent via death or divorce, can make the sufferer go through a ‘highly stressful’ situation. The body reacts in a very unique way, as in such circumstances, the afflicted person may undergo severe diarrhea that completely disrupts the regularity of the sufferer’s bowel movements, which would then be followed by a bout of constipation.

If people have a diagnosed psychological condition, such as chronic stress, anxiety, or if they suffer from bi-polar disorder, then they do tend to take medication to help relieve the symptoms.

However, please note that bloating and constipation are few of the most common side-effects of taking psychiatric drugs because while they are numbing your ability to feel the stress (it does not cure you of it), it is also slowing down the digestive processes in your gastrointestinal tract. This is why reputed psychiatrists always try therapy first and resort to these pills only as a last resort!

Unfortunately, it is a common trend to turn to alcohol or substance abuse (illicit drugs) to counteract stress. Not only does it not provide you with any long-term relief from the stress, it actually has an adverse affect on your gastrointestinal tract as well! Alcohol dehydrates your body in general and your stool in particular, while suppressing intestinal peristalsis. Dehydration makes the stool harder, the adverse affects of which has been discussed earlier in this article.

Can Constipation Cause Stress?

If you are a woman, then the relationship between stress and constipation can definitely work the other way around. Research[3] has shown that women can undergo mood swings, and even suffer from anxiety or depression if they are suffering from chronic constipation. In women, constipation usually has a two-fold impact, physical and mental:

  • Physical Duress: Not having regular bowel movement can cause women (and men) to bloat, suffer from intestinal cramps, etc. that can have an overall impact on your health.
  • Emotional Stress: Not having regular bowel movements can cause a build-up of gas which can lead to potentially embarrassing situations in a public setting, which would obviously result in additional stress. Sometimes, once constipated, women fear having a bowel movement because of the pain it might cause, which would only exacerbate the situation.

Being stressed about constipation is bound to make matters worse. The research also pointed out that women who undergo a lot of stress induced by constipation has a lesser amount of blood flowing to the rectum and anus, which hampers regular bowel movements and makes the constipation worse.

How to Free Yourself from this Vicious Cycle

Whether it is the stress that is causing you to be constipated or whether the irregularity in your bowel movements is making your life more stressful, if you do not resolve the situation, you will be stuck in a vicious cycle. Following are some suggestions that would help you break free.

Know What ‘your’ Regular Bowel Habits are: Everyone’s body in general and digestive systems in particular are unique and just because you do not have to go everyday does not mean that there is anything wrong with you. Regular bowel movements can range anywhere between three times a day to three times a week! Know what your schedule is and get comfortable with it, as it will save you from a lot of undue stress!

Try to Eliminate Stress as much as Possible: Our hectic lifestyle subjects us to an undue amount of stress every day; however, you owe it to yourself to eliminate that as much as possible. Is the unfair workload at work putting you under duress? An open conversation with your boss might be in order. Going through a rocky patch in your relationship? Talk things out with your partner, and if needed seek some help from a relationship counselor. Still haven’t come to terms with your parent’s divorce? You need to stop blaming yourself and seek help from a psychiatrist if you have to.

Listen to your favorite band or find a hobby that you really enjoy. Be active; play basketball at the Y or join a yoga or a zumba class! Take a vacation or maybe just a nice long bubble-bath. You need to find what makes you happy and follow that passionately because, at the risk of sounding painfully obvious, you only get this one life so you owe it to yourself to live it on your own terms and be as free of undue stress as possible!

Seek Medical Help: You should never be shy of seeking medical help and it is always a good idea to undergo a routine check-up to make sure that your internal plumbing is in working order. If you show any signs of Irritable Bowel Syndrome[4], then you should consult your general practitioner. If you are prone towards suffering from depression or panic attacks, then setting up a regular schedule with your psychiatrist might be in order!

Re-Evaluate Your Diet: You need to consume an adequate amount of fluids and have a diet that is rich in fiber to facilitate regular bowel movements. Try to limit your intake of alcohol for the time-being. One nifty little trick that has helped people be regular in their bowel habits is to squeeze an entire lemon into a glass of warm water and drink it first thing in the morning. It has done wonders for sufferers and you can give it a try!

Most regular cases of stress induced constipation will be resolved if you try the methods mentioned above. However, if you do not receive adequate relief, then we would strongly suggest that you seek advice from a qualified gastroenterologist, because your symptoms may be caused by a more serious underlying medical condition.

In severe cases be prepared to undergo XRays, ultrasounds or MRIs of your abdominal area and a colonoscopy may be necessary as well!

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