If you’re one of the approximately 40 million adults suffering from anxiety in the United States, chances are you’ve also suffered from a bout of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, anywhere from 50% to 90% of people with IBS struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Is there a link between anxiety and your digestive health? To understand the possible causality, let’s first take a look a closer look at the common disorder known as IBS.
What is IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder that affects the digestive system and is a recurring condition that can often require long-term management. IBS can cause symptoms such as bloating, cramping, gas and abdominal pain. Sufferers of IBS are also known to experience changes in their bowel movements, experiencing either diarrhea (IBS-D) or constipation (IBS-C), and possibly both (IBS-M). The precise cause of IBS remains unknown, but there are factors that can trigger a bout of IBS or may be an underlying cause of your IBS symptoms.
Possible Causes of IBS
While the exact causes of IBS remain uncertain, there are some issues that are common amongst people who live with it. Research suggests that some individuals may have a genetic predisposition for IBS while intestinal inflammation, bacterial infection in the digestive tract, food sensitivities and bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine are all possible medical factors.
There may also be psychological elements triggering your symptoms of IBS. Stress, depression, anxiety or traumatic early life events such as physical or sexual abuse may trigger symptoms, even long after the event has passed. This is because your digestive system, or your “gut,” communicates with your nervous system with its own set of chemical messengers. In this way, stress in one system can easily exacerbate stressors in the other.
IBS and Anxiety
It’s important to clarify that anxiety and other psychological disorders don’t cause a digestive disorder. The correlation between anxiety and IBS is the “hidden” link between your brain and your digestive health. The brain and the gut are in engaged in constant, 24-hour bi-directional communication where the gut informs the brain about what condition it is in and the brain interprets the signals.
For example, if you are hungry, the gut sends signals to the brain that you are hungry and the brain interprets those signals so that the rest of your body knows how to respond. If you have eaten enough and become full, your gut will send those signals to the brain and the brain then interprets the signal as “full”, further signaling you to stop eating. People who have IBS may experience these sensations in a different manner, like feeling pain instead of feeling full, or becoming constipated rather than eliminating in a consistent manner. These different digestive symptoms can be due to a variety of factors, including a disruption in the communication between the brain and the gut.
Anxiety & The Bain-Gut Connection- What’s The Deal?
To make a long story very short, the interruption in the brain-gut communication can occur when a person experiences long-term, chronic stress or has insufficient coping skills to manage constant levels of anxiety. This scenario can cause the part of the brain that is wired to protect us from “danger” to communicate to the body “Uh-oh, there is a problem here!”, which can set the body up for “fight, flight or freeze” mode and in this way, interrupt the digestive process (and therefore, the ability to digest correctly).
Anxiety can become further exacerbated around food, going to the bathroom and begin to impact your quality of life in many ways. Some people may become fearful of eating certain foods and start worrying about getting sick even before it happens (visceral anxiety), while others take it a step further and imagine that any outing will result in a bad digestive experience and begin to socially isolate themselves. Furthermore, research has also suggested that as you experience anxiety, your mind becomes hypersensitive to the spasms of the colon and decreases the brain’s ability to “buffer” digestive activity, thus making you more aware (and more anxious) about the activity in your gut.
Treatment for Anxiety-Related IBS
Fortunately, many people who suffer from IBS can control their symptoms by managing sources of stress and making appropriate changes to their diet and lifestyle. For those with anxiety and depression, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can teach you to incorporate cognitive techniques that address your thoughts around your anxiety /depression along with behavioral and relaxation techniques that will help you to learn how to change certain behaviors around triggers and learn how to talk to your body in a language that it understands. Integrating these techniques will help to reduce the stress and better manage the anxiety that may be contributing to your IBS symptoms.
Another treatment that has been proven helpful in recent studies for many IBS sufferers is Gut-Directed Hypnotherapy. This specialized hypnotherapy focuses on creating a healthier line of “communication” between your gut and your brain through guided-imagery sessions of hypnosis which help to reteach the brain how to correctly interpret the signals being received from the gut.
If you believe that your symptoms of IBS are being impacted or caused primarily by anxiety, a licensed therapist with experience in dealing with digestive disorders can help. With support and guidance, you can learn how to better manage your life stressors and alleviate some triggers of your IBS. Contact me today to for a free 20-minute phone consultation.
For more detailed information on the brain-gut connection, we recommend Dr. Emeran Mayer’s book The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health. HarperCollins, 2016