IBS is the most common gastrointestinal disorder in America. It affects about 15 million people, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). IBS symptoms include frequent bouts of diarrhea, constipation, cramping, bloating, gas and nausea. There's no cure for IBS but there are treatments that can help reduce symptoms.
Some people with IBS say that anxiety worsens their symptoms. It's not clear why anxiety might make IBS worse or better in any one person. Let's explore how anxiety can worsen symptoms of IBS and discuss ways to reduce anxiety and stress to better manage symptoms of IBS.
What is irritable bowel syndrome?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that causes abdominal pain, bloating and changes in bowel movements. It's not life-threatening and it's not caused by a specific food. You may be diagnosed with IBS if you have recurring symptoms for at least three months. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for IBS - but it can be treated to reduce your symptoms.
The main difference between IBS and other digestive diseases such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis is that these conditions cause inflammation in the intestines and affect the entire digestive tract (from mouth to anus).
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Anxiety can cause both physical and mental symptoms.
Physical symptoms include:
Mental symptoms include:
Racing thoughts and trouble concentrating
Can anxiety cause IBS?
Anxiety can make your IBS symptoms more severe and frequent. Anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response, which is an automatic response to a perceived threat. This causes an increase in heart rate, and a release of adrenaline into your bloodstream.
This leads to physical symptoms such as sweating, increased blood pressure, nausea, diarrhea and muscle tension or pain. Physical symptoms of anxiety can also cause emotional reactions like fear or panic that exacerbate your symptoms further by making you feel anxious about them.
How does anxiety affect my IBS?
Anxiety can affect people with IBS in a few different ways.
It's well-known that anxiety can cause IBS symptoms, but it can also exacerbate existing symptoms. If you have anxiety about your IBS, you might experience increased pain and discomfort due to stress.
But there are some people who have IBS and don't have any anxiety at all. For these people, the pain from their digestive issues is enough to make them feel stressed and anxious—their worry may not even be related to their bowel movements or other gastrointestinal issues at all!
For many people with IBS, taking steps toward managing their anxiety (and therefore reducing stress) will help make coping with their condition easier as well as improve their overall quality of life.
What can I do to help myself with IBS and anxiety?
There are many ways to help yourself with IBS and anxiety. These include meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, exercise and support groups.
Meditation: Meditation can help you cope more effectively with your symptoms and reduce anxiety. Studies show that it may also improve gut function by lowering levels of inflammation. A simple form of meditation is guided imagery, where you visualize a calming scene such as sitting on the beach in a warm breeze or floating through the sky looking down at the world below you (this is called “cloud bathing”). You can also try deep breathing exercises or repeating positive affirmations such as “I am strong” until they become true for you.
Exercise can help you deal with the stress of your IBS. It also has other benefits, such as lowering your blood pressure and helping you sleep better. If you're new to exercise, or if you've never exercised before, start slowly and build up gradually.
Talk to your doctor first about getting started.
Check with a physical therapist if pain limits what exercises you can do or how much weight-lifting is safe for you (for example, some people who have had surgery may need special precautions).
Start out with gentle stretches and light aerobic activity on most days of the week; increase intensity as you are able to do so safely without increasing pain or causing injury.
People often find it helpful to keep track of their progress by writing down how much they exercised each day and which activities they did during that time period—and then comparing notes over several weeks' time when things settle down into a more regular routine pattern again after starting out slowly like this means more than just "I did X number of reps today!"
Support groups and community.
Support groups and communities can help you feel less alone and teach you about new coping strategies, treatments for your IBS symptoms, and how to manage stress.
If you’re interested in attending a support group or community meeting for people with IBS, here are some resources that may be helpful:
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD): https://www.anad.org/find-help/support-groups
American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA): https://www.theacpa.org/chronic-pain-support-groups
Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA): http://ccfa.org/local_resources
Learn to breathe in a new way.
Most people breathe in a shallow, rapid way that doesn't give their lungs enough air. This can lead to feelings of panic. To help you get rid of those feelings, try taking deeper breaths:
Breathe in through your nose for a count of five seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of five seconds. Repeat this cycle three times or more until your body feels relaxed and calm.
Focus on how the air feels as it goes into your nose and down into your lungs. Feel the sensation that occurs in both shoulders when they relax down toward the floor—you'll know when this happens because they will feel heavy rather than tense or tight.
The most important thing with IBS or any health condition related to stress or anxiety is to take care of yourself first.
The most important thing with IBS or any health condition related to stress or anxiety is to take care of yourself first. You have to be your own advocate, which means finding out what makes you feel good and taking time for that. You need to take care of your mental health, physical health, and spiritual health.
When it comes to IBS specifically, this means getting enough sleep (which is always a challenge when we have a medical condition!), exercising regularly (but not too much that you hurt yourself), eating well (again finding the right balance between what works for me vs. what works for other people).
We hope this article has helped to clear up some of the confusion around how anxiety and IBS can affect each other. It is important to remember that the most important thing is taking care of yourself first, so if you are experiencing symptoms of either anxiety or IBS then it is time to talk with your doctor about treatment options. You may also want to consider participating in support groups for people with similar conditions; you will find others who have been through what you are going through now, and they’ll be able to give valuable advice on how to best handle these situations (and maybe even offer some laughs!).