How Stress Can Cause Constipation, And What To Do About It

Updated February 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stress can affect nearly every aspect of our lives at home, at work, and socially. Stress can manifest in our cognitive functioning, emotions, and physical well-being. For example, stress is a factor in cardiovascular and vascular diseases, such as hypertension, and often translates into other health issues that may seem minor but can seriously interfere with daily functioning, such as constipation. 

Constipation is a common ailment, and there are more ads on television about remedies for constipation than any other condition. While the products featured in these ads can help to alleviate the discomfort of constipation by inducing a bowel movement, not many focus on the causes of the condition. In addition, they rarely mention that stress can be a factor in how and when we can go to the bathroom. This post discusses how stress and other lifestyle factors can cause constipation and what you can do about it. 

Stress And The Digestive System

Stress can affect the digestive system in several ways, including interfering with the proper breakdown and absorption of food in the stomach and intestines. Stress can also cause vascular problems that can lead to constipation when there is inadequate blood flow to and from our bowels. For example, people with hypertension sometimes have severe bleeding of hemorrhoids, and pain and swelling from hemorrhoids can cause constipation because it becomes difficult to pass waste through the rectum. 

Blockage due to vascular restrictions is a severe problem that can lead to emergency surgery to remove the blockage. In addition, having trapped waste in the intestines causes bloating, fatigue, and weight gain. Our bowels are essential for transporting toxins out of our bodies each day. Gas, bad breath, and body odor can also result from poorly functioning bowels. 

You can buy products to assist with bowel movements and flush out toxins and waste from the body. However, these are only temporary fixes when these problems come about due to stress from our lifestyles, work, or diet. When we are stressed, our vascular system also becomes stressed, and if our vascular system is stressed, our bowels cannot function correctly.

Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders And Stress

Functional gastrointestinal disorders are a group of health issues related to persistent problems with digestion and elimination, including constipation. Two common disorders in this group are irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional constipation. These disorders do not result from any obvious abnormality, such as a tumor, and blood tests, x-rays, and MRIs cannot diagnose them. However, these conditions often accompany excessive stress that profoundly affects the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract, for example, by slowing or completely stopping gastrointestinal functioning. In addition, the symptoms of these disorders can exacerbate stress, worsening the physical symptoms. For this reason, doctors often recommend that people with functional gastrointestinal disorders seek psychotherapy as part of the healing process, along with changes in diet and lifestyle. 

Recent research confirms a powerful connection between gut health and psychological well-being. Our gut is endowed with myriad nerve cells communicating via the vagus nerve to our brains about what is happening in our bodies. This interaction between the gut and brain is called the gut-brain axis, and is the basis of disorders such as IBS and functional constipation. In addition, one study found that gastrointestinal distress is often linked to depression and both conditions involve decreased amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin. In animal studies, lower levels of serotonin cause constipation. 

Lifestyle Factors Affecting Constipation

Several lifestyle factors can significantly influence whether a person develops constipation, and all of these can be affected by the amount of stress a person experiences and how they handle it. Lifestyle factors leading to constipation include how often a person takes a bathroom break, dietary choices, hydration, and exercise. Let’s take a detailed look at each of these and how they relate to stress and constipation.

Inadequate Bathroom Breaks As A Cause Of Constipation

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One leading cause of constipation is the inability to take a bathroom break when we need to go. Many train their bowels to act at certain times of the day because this is more convenient. However, this is not as nature intended. If a person is working or involved in an activity where the need to use the bathroom arises, and they do not take time for it and wait until a more convenient time, they often find that the urge to move the bowels has passed when they finally get to a toilet.

The type of work we do can cause constipation when we have an occupation needing constant attention, such as teaching or being a surgeon. With these two professions, individuals cannot readily leave their stations to use the bathroom. However, ignoring our body’s signal that it is time to move the bowels can lead to constipation. 

Hydration Is Essential For Bowel Movements 

Another way our jobs or lifestyles can get in the way of proper and regular bowel functioning is the inability or inconvenience of adequate hydration. Again, occupation can get in the way, as sometimes the pressures of our job make us feel there is no time to drink the amount of water our bodies need to function. In addition, drinking more liquids means taking more bathroom breaks to pass urine. Therefore, many people who drive for a living, or are in occupations such as teaching where breaks are either inconvenient or strictly scheduled, avoid drinking while performing their jobs. The resulting dehydration can quickly lead to constipation.

Dietary Causes Of Constipation

Diet is a crucial factor in how our digestive system works, and our bowel movements depend on how well the digestive system works. If we lack fiber in our diets, we tend to have poor digestion, which leads to constipation. If we regularly eat fast food, the lack of fiber can easily result in constipation. Part of the solution is to eat a diet high in fiber and low in refined carbohydrates. 

Another dietary factor that can cause constipation concerns microbial gut health. The gut contains trillions of beneficial microorganisms that help us digest food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate toxins and waste products. Stress and a poor diet can reduce the balance of these beneficial microbes, which can affect our bowel movements or lack thereof. 

Two types of foods can have a profound effect on gut health: probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are foods containing an abundance of gut-healthy microorganisms, including live culture yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso. Prebiotic foods are high in dietary fibers that feed beneficial gut microorganisms. Prebiotic foods include dandelion greens, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, oats, and apples. By eating probiotic and prebiotic foods daily, you can improve the health of your gut, and this can lead to better overall mental and physical health. 

Exercise And Constipation

A lack of regular exercise is another contributor to developing constipation. In addition, physical activity is an excellent way of reducing stress. The reason exercise helps with bowel movements is that it keeps the diaphragm and abdominal muscles strong and healthy, and these parts of the body aid in moving the bowels. 

Therapy Can Help Relieve Stress

Several forms of psychotherapy can help reduce stress and impart coping skills to manage it better. In addition, psychotherapy is a recommended option for many people with functional gastrointestinal disorders like IBS or functional constipation. 

Treatments that may help reduce stress and improving bowel function include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This treatment focuses on teaching people to change negative thought patterns that can lead to anxiety and stress. 

Hypnotherapy uses deep relaxation techniques and positive thinking and images to reduce stress, and it is useful for improve gastrointestinal functioning. 

Relaxation Therapy: This psychotherapy treatment involves multiple techniques to help a person relax through deep breathing, visualization, and calming music. When you lower your stress levels, bowel function can improve. 

Online therapy through a platform like is another convenient option for treating constipation-related stress. Many studies have found that online therapy is as effective as an in-person treatment for anxiety and depression, which frequently accompany high stress. 

In addition, if you are experiencing stress, the convenience of talking to a therapist from home or anywhere else you have internet can reduce the hassle and tension you might feel if you traveled to someone’s office. 


Stress, proper hydration, diet, and exercise are all things we can manage either by ourselves or with the help of a professional. If you are in a job that is so demanding you cannot take bathroom breaks when needed, it is likely the job is causing you stress. Most of us try to take these things in stride and learn to live with them. However, living with constipation can reduce your quality of life and increase your stress levels. Therapy can help you lower and manage stress more effectively, and an added benefit might be improvements in how well your bowels function and online therapy can make it easy to get help.  

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