Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The Impact of Stress and Anxiety on IBS

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a group of intestinal symptoms that include abdominal pain and cramps, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gas. IBS may be referred to as irritable colon, spastic colon, or nervous stomach due to the correlation of symptoms with emotional stress, tension, and anxiety. Its causes are unclear but may be linked to an overly sensitive colon or immune system.

According to a study, 7 to 16 percent of Americans experience irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. The condition affects more women and young people. Some people with IBS have minor symptoms. However, the symptoms of IBS are significant for others and disrupt daily life.

The symptoms of IBS include:
  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating and gas
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

Symptoms of IBS aren’t always constant. They can resolve and return. Yet, some people experience continuous symptoms of IBS.

Relationship between Stress, Anxiety, and IBS

The relationship between stress, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is still unclear, and it's challenging to determine which comes first. However, studies have shown that they can occur together.

According to Edward Blanchard, a psychology professor at the State University of New York, around 60% of IBS patients have one or more psychiatric disorders.

Blanchard says a common mental ailment among people with IBS is generalized anxiety disorder, which affects over 60% of people with IBS and is a psychiatric illness. Another 20% have depression, and the rest have other disorders.

People with anxiety, whether or not they have IBS, often experience excessive worry about health, money, and careers. This anxiety can result in other symptoms, such as an upset stomach, trembling, insomnia, dizziness, muscle aches, and irritability.

There are various theories regarding the connection between IBS, stress, and anxiety:
  • Although psychological issues such as anxiety are not the root cause of IBS, people with this condition may be more sensitive to emotional troubles.
  • Intense emotions such as anxiety, depression, and stress trigger chemicals in the brain that activates pain signals in your gut that may cause your colon to react.
  • Stress and anxiety can also increase awareness of spam in the colon.
  • IBS can be triggered by the immune system, which is affected by stress.

How to Cope with Stress and Anxiety?

Studies have shown that managing your stress can help you prevent or ease symptoms of IBS. Here’s the reason. Your gut has its own brain, known as the enteric nervous system, responsible for getting butterflies in the stomach when nervous. This "second brain" regulates the digestion of food and communicates continuously with your actual brain. Therefore, managing stress and anxiety levels can help in managing IBS.
Managing stress and tension can help alleviate symptoms of IBS. Here are some things you can do on your own:

Exercise: Walking, swimming, running, and other physical activities can help reduce stress and depression. It can also help in regulating your bowel movements.

Mind-body Exercises: Meditation, relaxation breathing, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong can activate your body's relaxation response.

Mindfulness Meditation: You can find mindfulness-based exercises online at OmniHelp. We help you learn to manage stress by changing the way you think. You can learn to meditate from your comfort zone.

Relaxation Techniques: Relaxation exercises such as deep breathing can help restore calm. You can also learn about visualization, where you imagine a quiet scenery.
In addition to managing stress, getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet can also help with IBS. Joining a self-help group for people with IBS or other digestive disorders may also be beneficial.

When to Consider Therapy?

If you are experiencing tension and anxiety due to constipation or diarrhea, consult a healthcare provider for appropriate treatment. You can also opt for talk therapy.

According to Blanchard, people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) begin by consulting with their primary care physician before considering psychological care. They should only consider the next step, i.e., psychological care if the treatment provided by the physician does not work.

Blanchard says around two-thirds of people with IBS may benefit from changes in diet and medication. The other third, people with more severe symptoms, get better with psychological help. "Without that help, they don't seem to get out of the problem," he added.

A therapist can teach you techniques to break the cycle of negative thoughts that can worsen your IBS symptoms. They can also help you develop coping strategies for managing triggers and different ways to deal with difficult situations. Research demonstrates that therapy can also help with symptoms of IBS in people who try it, although it may not be effective for constipation or abdominal pain.

Therapies for IBS

Therapies to treat irritable bowel syndrome focus primarily on behavior. Types of therapy that may be useful include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This type of talk therapy involves identifying and managing situations that trigger IBS symptoms. You can learn to recognize negative thought patterns and modify them to cope with the symptoms of CBT. For example, if eating in a public place makes you anxious, CBT can help you overcome those feelings.

Psychodynamic Therapy:This therapy looks at how your emotions affect IBS. Your therapist will focus on relaxation techniques and stress management strategies.

Hypnotherapy: In this therapy, a therapist uses hypnosis to help you reach a relaxed state. This makes learning positive ways of coping with stress and changing behaviors easier. You remain conscious and in control throughout the session.

Relaxation Training: There are several ways to reduce stress and calm your nervous system. One method is progressive relaxation, where you work through your body tightening and then releasing your muscles. With time, you can learn to differentiate between a tense and relaxed state and use this technique to calm yourself.

Biofeedback:In biofeedback, a provider connects you to a device that keeps you informed about your body's functionality. You can use that information to make changes. For instance, this device can you get better control over the muscles that handle your bowel movements.

Final Words

Stress and anxiety can worsen irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, and the presence of IBS can increase stress and anxiety levels. This complex relationship may involve alterations in gut-brain communication and immune system dysfunction. Effective treatment for IBS should include both physical and psychological approaches. Recognizing the connection between stress, anxiety, and IBS can lead to better treatment strategies and improved quality of life.