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The 'Gross' Symptom of Anxiety We Don't Talk About

We know the body affects the mind affects the body in various ways, especially when it comes to mental illness. Many of us who live with anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another condition experience physical symptoms like tremors, nausea, hives, and diarrhea.

The last one is my particular curse, which no one wants to hear about, but there you have it. Or rather, there I have it.

I didn’t even know this was a problem related to my mental state for many years. All I knew was whenever my mother or father was taken to the hospital, I would invariably and eventually find my guts in an uproar — usually when I got home, but sometimes in the waiting room. I thought my bowels were my “attack organ,” as the saying went, and that I was merely reacting to the stress of the situation.

Of course that was true, but it never occurred to me this was not just a physical problem, but a mental problem manifesting physically. At the time, I was undiagnosed with bipolar disorder and knew little about the condition or how the mind and the body were connected.

The severity of the problem was impressed on me years later, when I was having severe anxiety, just after coming out of a severe and lengthy spell of depression. The more anxious I got, the more episodes I would have, sometimes up to six times a day. I lived with an antidiarrheal medication within easy reach at all times. During the worst of it, I didn’t dare to leave the house. When I applied for disability, it was this affliction as much as my bipolar disorder that was the basis of the case.

Naturally, I told my primary care physician about the problem, and he sent me to a gastroenterologist. The specialist thought I might have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but then again he wasn’t sure and didn’t seem to give it much more thought.

My psychiatrist, though, had a different idea. He suggested the upset in my guts was caused by upsets in my mind — not that I was imagining it (there was ample evidence I wasn’t), but that my nerves were overstimulated by anxiety and that caused my gastric symptoms. It was a feedback loop: anxiety caused diarrhea caused anxiety and so on.

I don’t know if it was the anti-anxiety med he gave me or if my anxiety just calmed down on its own, but the episodes became fewer and less frequent. I no longer stayed strictly at home, within easy reach of a bathroom, or feared going out. (I did make sure I knew where the bathroom was any place I did go.) I even stopped carrying a change of underwear in my purse. And my disability claim was denied. (I was also making so much money at my at-home freelance work that my lawyer said the judge’s head would explode.)

I still get anxiety-related diarrhea at times, but nothing like the biohazards I used to have. It’s no longer an everyday (or many-times-a-day) occurrence. I still do keep a supply of antidiarrheal medication in my desk, my purse, and the bathroom, though, just in case.

I hesitated before writing this post, as it’s a difficult and unpleasant topic. But I know a struggling mind can make the body struggle too, and I thought there might be people out there who have similar problems and needed some reassurance they weren’t the only one. I don’t know what your “attack organ” may be or what your particular symptoms are, but do keep in mind the interaction of the mind and the body can produce unwanted results. And you are not alone in dealing with that.

Getty image by image_jungle

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