Big Brain Energy: Demystifying the “stress shits” and other psychological disorders of the gut

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If you are a college student, you have most likely experienced the “stress shits,” brought on by human’s innate fight-or-flight response. Photo by Elle Hughes from Pexels

Picture this: You’re sitting in the chemistry building, desperately trying to study for a lab quiz for class in 30 minutes. Your heart is racing and your palms are sweaty. Suddenly, while spending the last few seconds you have cramming in any last bits of information into your overworked brain, you feel a dready nausea come over you. It starts in your stomach and gradually makes its way down to your groin. Shit. You think to yourself, as you run to the bathroom.

If you are a college student, you most likely have experienced what I like to call the “stress shits.” Despite the name, this experience is not only limited to diarrhea/constipation, it also includes general nausea (or a feeling of your stomach being tied in knots) and, more rarely, vomiting. 

Though the quote “mental health is just as important as physical health,” is well-intentioned, it blatantly neglects the interface between these two systems. Indeed, some portions of what we think of as “mental health” may not be directly observable or measurable by a bodily process. However, the very real physiological and physical manifestations of mental health are often observable, through obvious mediums such as gut reactions.

Humans have an innate stress response, a familiar term known as fight-or-flight. Historically, this mechanism has been particularly beneficial for fending off a dangerous predator or running from something that can cause us imminent harm. Today, this same response is elicited by smaller stressors: School, work, relationship troubles. None of these situations typically involve an immediate need to fight or flee.

Because these periods of stress are often chronic and repetitive, the body does not know how to shut off the sympathetic nervous system activation. The fight-or-flight response was never intended to be maintained long term. It has not evolved to sustain drawn-out periods of stress and anxiety. So, under those conditions, the system malfunctions, often leading to psychological disorders and physical symptoms of these conditions. 

The fight-or-flight response was never intended to be maintained long term. It has not evolved to sustain drawn-out periods of stress and anxiety.

“When these responses occur too frequently and/or dramatically, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which can result in the body remaining in a semi hyperstimulated state, since stress hormones are stimulants,” said Jim Folk, who serves as the president for anxietycentre.com out of Canada. “A body that becomes stress-response hyperstimulated can exhibit similar sensations and symptoms to that of an active stress response. Experiencing diarrhea is an example of how the stress response and/or hyperstimulation can affect the body.”

Two important organ systems, the digestive tract and the nervous system, are constantly communicating with one another, which elicits similar responses in both areas and can spell trouble for your gut when you are stressed, said Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Your gastrointestinal tract has many nerves and is a nervous system organ, much like the brain,” Dr. Staller told Self in September.  “The brain can impact what’s going on in the gastrointestinal tract, and vice versa.”

Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), wrote an article on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website where he further explained how the interconnection between the brain and the gut can cause significant alterations in the digestive tract that can lead to many undesirable outcomes when it is  time to hit the toilet.

“When you are anxious, some of the hormones and chemicals released by your body enter your digestive tract, where they interfere with digestion,” Goodman said. “They have a negative effect on your gut flora (microorganisms that live in the digestive tract and aid digestion) and decrease antibody production. The resulting chemical imbalance can cause a number of gastrointestinal conditions.”

The enteric system, which also plays a significant role in stress-induced bowel responses, is a peripheral nervous system division dedicated solely to innervating and controlling gastrointestinal activity. As one Prime Health Denver article puts it, “this [system] is like a brain in your gut. The enteric system is what regulates bowel movements (among other digestive functions), and it can be pushed to its limits by chronic stress.”

When you are stressed out, your colon often experiences spasms or more frequent contractions. If these spasms are occurring in a widespread area, you are more likely to experience diarrhea and loose, watery stools. If the spasm is occurring in one area, you are more likely to experience constipation due to backup or a delay in fecal movement, according to Dr. Ashkan Farhardi, who also spoke to Self in an article in September.

It has also been suggested that we experience negative consequences in our gut due to problematic behaviors we engage in to attempt to quell our stress, such as via stress eating (especially large amounts of fatty, salty or sweet foods) or consuming substances such as alcohol or caffeine in large amounts, according to an article on BetterHelp.

“If you’re under pressure trying to meet a deadline and you stay up late eating junk to help you stay awake, and then rely on coffee to keep you going the next day, your stomach is going to suffer the consequences,” the article said. “You may experience discomfort when pooping, and any symptoms may be worse if you have a gut condition.”

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