If you’re someone who deals with anxiety, you’ve likely also experienced Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, between 50% – 90% of people with IBS also struggle with mental health issues. Is there a link between anxiety and your digestive health? To understand the possible causality, let’s take a closer look at the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
What is IBS?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder that affects the digestive system. It is a recurring condition that can often require long-term management. Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) include bloating, cramping, gas, and abdominal pain. Sufferers of IBS are also known to experience changes in their bowel movements. This includes diarrhea (IBS-D), constipation (IBS-C), or possibly both (IBS-M). There are ways to reduce symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, some of which can be done by addressing your anxiety.
Possible Causes of IBS
While the exact causes of IBS remain uncertain, there are some commonalities in those who live with it. Research suggests that some individuals may have a genetic predisposition for IBS. Medical factors include intestinal inflammation, bacterial overgrowth or infection in the digestive tract, and food sensitivities.
There may also be psychological elements triggering your symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Stress, depression, anxiety, and traumatic early life events may trigger symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This can happen even long after the event has passed.
Your digestive system, or your “gut,” communicates with your nervous system with its own set of chemical messengers. 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 a “hidden” link between your brain and your digestive health. The brain and the gut are engaged in constant bi-directional communication. 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 to let it know. The brain then interprets those signals so that the rest of your body knows how to respond. Once you have eaten enough to be full, your gut sends signals to your brain, signaling you to stop eating.
People who have IBS may experience these sensations differently. This may manifest in feeling pain instead of feeling full, or becoming constipated rather than eliminating in a consistent manner. Different digestive symptoms can be due to a variety of factors, including a disruption in brain-gut communication.
Anxiety & The Brain-Gut Connection- What’s The Deal?
Essentially, interruption in brain-gut communication can occur when a person experiences long-term, chronic stress or has insufficient anxiety coping skills.
This can cause the part of the brain that is wired to protect us from “danger” to tell the body there’s a problem when there isn’t really one. This can set the body up for “fight, flight or freeze” mode. It interrupts the digestive process (and therefore, the ability to digest correctly).
Anxiety can become further exacerbated around food, or going to the bathroom. It can begin to impact your quality of life in many ways. Some people may become fearful of eating certain foods. Some may start worrying about getting sick before it even happens, called visceral anxiety. Others convince themselves 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. It decreases the brain’s ability to “buffer” digestive activity and makes 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. It also teaches you 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 reduce stress and better manage 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.
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
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.