What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome and what are the symptoms?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a gastrointestinal disorder that can cause a variety of uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms. Diarrhea, cramping, bloating, gas, and abdominal pain are all common. People who deal with IBS are also known to experience changes in their bowel movements. Sometimes, this means that symptoms of IBS aren’t always consistent.
Why do I have IBS?
The exact causes of IBS remain uncertain. However, there are some issues that are common amongst people who live with it. Intestinal inflammation, a bacterial infection or overgrowth (SIBO) in the digestive tract, a genetic predisposition, food sensitivities, and/or bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine are common contributing issues.
Psychological elements can also trigger symptoms of IBS. Stress, depression, anxiety or traumatic early life events may irritate symptoms, even long after the event has passed. This is because your digestive system (or your gut) communicates with your nervous system. Through a set of chemical messengers, your brain and gut communicate. If you have stress in one system, it can easily cause stress in the other. This is called the Brain-Gut connection.
How are IBS and anxiety/stress linked?
While anxiety doesn’t directly cause IBS, it can- and often does- exacerbate symptoms. Some people may become fearful of eating certain foods and start worrying about getting sick even before it happens. Others imagine that any outing will result in a bad digestive experience and begin to socially isolate themselves.
Research has also suggested that as you experience anxiety, your mind becomes hypersensitive to the spasms of the colon. This decreases the brain’s ability to ‘buffer’ digestive activity, which makes you more aware (and more anxious) about the activity in your gut.
All of this leads to an unfortunate cycle: stress causes IBS flare-ups, which causes heightened awareness of symptoms. This causes stress about IBS, which causes more flareups.
What’s the Brain-Gut connection?
Anxiety and other psychological disorders don’t cause digestive disorders. However, there is a link between your brain and your digestive health.
The brain and the gut are in constant two-way communication. The gut tells the brain how it’s feeling, and the brain interprets those signals. For example, when a person without IBS is hungry, the gut sends signals a signal to the brain that tell them it’s time to eat. But if you are a person that deals with IBS, you may not feel hunger and satiation the same way others do.
For example, instead of feeling full, you may experience feeling abdominal pain. Perhaps you become constipated rather than eliminating consistently, or on the other end of the spectrum, you receive signals of urgency and feel the need “to go”. At times, it can even become difficult to tell the difference between actually needing to use the bathroom or if it is simply gas passing through. These different digestive symptoms can be due to a variety of factors, including a disruption in the communication between the brain and the gut.
Brain-gut disruption can happen when a person experiences long-term chronic stress or has trouble managing constant levels of anxiety. Constant anxiety or stress sets up the body up for “fight, flight or freeze” mode. In that panicked state, the brain-gut connection miscommunicates and interrupts the digestive process.
How can someone with IBS cope?
Dealing with IBS can be incredibly stressful and frustrating. Fortunately, many people who suffer from IBS can greatly improve their symptoms by managing sources of stress and making changes to their diet and lifestyle.
While working with your doctors, keeping a healthy diet, staying active, and having a support group are essential, sometimes you need an additional team member to help manage the psychological side of IBS. If you feel like you are having trouble managing the stress or emotions surrounding your life with IBS, it may be helpful to reach out to a licensed mental health professional.
Therapy provides a safe, supportive, and confidential space for you to work towards your goals with a professional. Our practice draws from experience in working with people who have a chronic illness to help you identify ways to navigate seemingly on-going health challenges. You will have the chance to speak freely about yourself, share your life story, and build a therapeutic relationship.
What mental health treatments work well for someone with IBS?
For those with anxiety and depression related to IBS, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may be helpful. It can teach you techniques that address your thoughts around anxiety /depression, as well as behavioral and relaxation techniques. Learning how to communicate with your body and change certain behaviors can help reduce stress and anxiety. And since stress and anxiety are often linked to IBS, better managing those responses can help alleviate symptoms.
Another treatment that has been proven helpful in recent studies is Gut-Directed Hypnotherapy. This is a specialized form of hypnotherapy that focuses on creating a healthier line of communication between your gut and your brain. Communication is achieved through guided-imagery sessions of hypnosis. This helps reteach the brain how to correctly interpret the signals being received from the gut.
If you think your IBS symptoms are linked to anxiety, a licensed therapist that has experience in 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.