When stress causes constipation

By Patricia J. Young, PT, MS, DPT 

Women and men who complain of constipation and pelvic floor pain often have a lot of things in common. They tighten their diaphragm and flex the muscles between their neck and shoulders. They also tend to grit their teeth and hold their breath.

You might say they are in a holding pattern, almost an underlying frozen state. It doesn’t mean they cannot go about daily activities – this tension doesn’t prevent normal movement – but it means the tightness in their bodies is preventing them to use the restroom or perform other functions easily.

It may sound a little silly, but this high level of tension in their bodies makes you wonder if, on the most basic level, they feel safe to let go. If they live in a state of high anxiety, they very well may not. Though it may be stress and tension rather than a physical injury that is causing their pain or constipation, it doesn’t make their pain any less real.

Many experts believe that we experience neurological “wiring” changes following a stressful event or years of stress or anxiety (one well-known example of this field of research is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D.). Eventually, trauma or prolonged stress shows up in the form of physical pain or dysfunction in one or more of our body’s systems. It can start off quiet and become louder as life’s other stresses accumulate.

There are those people who have incredible coping mechanisms and others who have lower thresholds for pain or discomfort. Most people will take some action – if only temporarily – when their symptoms interrupt work, play, sex, or when they are scared about what their symptoms may mean. For others, especially those who don’t experience a sudden onset of symptoms, they may do nothing for quite a while, until their symptoms become too loud to ignore.

Once any potential physical causes of the symptoms are ruled out (such as during a visit to the doctor’s) the next step is to methodically de-stress the central nervous system. There are many ways to begin, from yoga to meditation and other relaxation techniques. When stress and/or trauma are so imbedded that they begin to show up as physical symptoms, however, it’s a good idea to seek out a trauma psychotherapist who can address the psycho-emotional factors contributing to the overall distress.

Your central nervous system in many ways rules your body. It is through your nervous system that your brain sends information and direction to every single part of you. You would never expect your body to perform well if you were feeding it bad food. We shouldn’t expect our bodies to feel good if our nervous systems are feeding stress and tension into them either.

If you think that your pain or constipation (or any other problem!) is due to stress, anxiety, or trauma, it’s better to seek professional help than going it alone. Once you’ve made sure that your condition or conditions have no physical cause, it’s time to sit down with a trusted professional, talk it through, and come up with a plan.

If you were suffering from a physical injury, you wouldn’t let it go untreated. Why not treat stress, anxiety, or trauma the same?!