Is There A Connection Between Stress And Constipation?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When encountering stress, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, causing a fight, flight, or freeze reaction that helps you navigate the situation appropriately. The human body is well-equipped to handle moderate amounts of stress, and stress can sometimes be positive.  

However, when stress becomes excessive, it can affect every bodily system negatively. Unhealthy stress can contribute to long-term heart problems, respiratory challenges, endocrine and nervous system damage, and gastrointestinal challenges. The digestive system is often considered one of the most affected by chronic stress, with symptoms ranging from nausea and diarrhea to constipation and indigestion. To understand stress and constipation in more detail, looking at how the stress response works can be essential. 

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Digestive problems are a symptom of stress

Causes of stress-related constipation 

Stress has profound effects on gut health and can cause various uncomfortable symptoms- including constipation. While there are many medicinal remedies for the symptoms of digestive trouble, stress-induced problems should be addressed at the source. Identifying the stressors in your life can be one way to understand how to address them. 

Some people may associate excessive stress with a significantly impactful life event like losing a loved one or job. This form of stress is called acute stress. While singular factors like these can cause high stress levels, experts believe chronic stress is the most harmful and may be the most likely to exacerbate existing gastrointestinal challenges.  

Factors that commonly contribute to chronic stress can include the following: 

  • Poverty
  • Abuse
  • Dysfunctional or challenging relationships 
  • Chronic pain 
  • Dissatisfaction with a job 
  • Living in an environment with political or economic strife
  • Extended caregiving for a dependent or loved one 

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Each person can experience stress differently; what one person finds stressful may not impact another. Therefore, try to stay mindful of the circumstances when you’re experiencing stress. 

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Strategies for coping with stress-related constipation 

Once you’ve isolated the challenges that cause stress and subsequent constipation, it may be easier to develop coping skills. Some of the most effective ways to cope with chronic stress include the following. 

Exercise

Exercise can strengthen your muscles and keep your physical systems healthy but also reduce stress by releasing endorphins into the brain. Exercise can also break down food, stimulate the gut, and balance out the helpful bacteria in the digestive system. Research suggests that light to moderate exercise may be more beneficial to the digestive system than strenuous workouts. 

Find a hobby you enjoy

Engaging in an enjoyable activity may sometimes divert your thinking from a stressful situation. It can provide respite and give you space to process your stress to better cope with it in the future. Some options include relaxing hobbies like gardening, playing an instrument, or knitting. Engaging in the creative arts can also be effective in helping people manage stress and mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and trauma. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Gather a support system

It may sometimes be helpful to de-stress by recruiting a trusted friend or family to talk to about your feelings. Studies show that suppressing emotions, especially anger, fear, and frustration, can be unhealthy. You may find that talking to someone can distract you from your stress. If you are uncomfortable confiding in someone you know, speaking to a therapist can be an option. 

Practice breathing exercises

Mindful breathing can be a beneficial coping mechanism for reducing stress. Sit quietly and take three deep abdominal breaths through the nose and out through the mouth. Notice how your belly rises and falls with each breath, how the air feels traveling through your nostrils, and what emotions arise. There are many unique breathing techniques available to try, so find one you enjoy. 

Eat a healthy diet

Eating well can be essential when living with digestive issues and mental health concerns. While it can be essential to include plenty of fiber-rich, gut-healthy foods in your diet, consult your physician or a nutrition specialist when designing a meal plan to reduce stress. 

Rule out serious medical problems

Chronic constipation or persistent digestive problems might indicate a medical condition. If your constipation interferes with your daily life and causes considerable discomfort, visit your doctor for a thorough checkup to rule out any serious causes. 

Eliminate stressors when possible

While you might not be able to eliminate all sources of stress from your daily life- there may be a few you have control over. For example, drawing boundaries at work whenever possible or learning to say “no” when someone requests what you cannot offer may be beneficial. In some cases, it might be valuable to reevaluate your relationships entirely and, if necessary, let go of unhealthy connections.  

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Digestive problems are a symptom of stress

Connect with a professional 

If you’re experiencing chronic constipation, address the situation immediately. Begin with a trip to your doctor for a checkup. They may recommend visiting a specialist to rule out serious conditions requiring immediate medical intervention. You can also get nutrition advice that promotes healthy digestion and keeps your body healthy. After considering physical health, consider your daily stress levels and whether they may contribute to your digestive difficulties. 

When untreated, chronic stress can become a more serious condition affecting more than healthy digestive functioning. It can lead to various mental health challenges like anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and stress-related illnesses. Treating stress-related digestive issues can involve working with a mental health professional.  

Therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat stress-related disorders. With the rise in popularity of online therapy, it can be more convenient to receive support from home. Studies have found that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy in treating conditions like depression and anxiety, which are common in those who experience chronic stress. 

Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp match individuals with licensed mental health professionals experienced in diagnosing and treating chronic stress and anxiety. You can speak to your online therapist on your schedule from anywhere with an internet connection. If you need help in between appointments, you can message your therapist, and they can respond to you when they’re available. 

Takeaway

Stress can sometimes be a cause of digestive challenges like constipation. Contact your medical doctor for support if you’re living with chronic constipation. If the cause of your constipation is stress, you might also benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist for further guidance.
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