Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC
Many IBS patients suffer from anxiety that could make their symptoms more challenging to manage. For some, the IBS came first, and then anxiety followed, but it was the other way around for others. Sometimes one condition triggers the other. Whether it is related to stress or emotional hurt, when such symptoms become an everyday occurrence, they seem to take over your life. While there is no cure for IBS, there are things you can do to make things easier and more comfortable when managing your symptoms. Understanding how to be proactive with IBS anxiety includes practicing ways to reduce stress to lessen symptoms.
Why Anxiety and Stress Affect Your Stomach
Anxiety and stress affect your stomach due to the body’s nervous system. Your brain and the nerves throughout your body are connected. When the body releases stress hormones, it contributes to anxiety such as sweating, racing heartbeat, and nervousness. Parts of the body’s central nervous system help bodily control functions related to digestion, urination, and tears.
When a person experiences significant stress or anxiety, it can affect hormones and activity between the stomach and the brain. The situation is similar to people with IBS. When the brain and the stomach experience a disturbance in balance, it may trigger uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and upset stomach. Such symptoms could also be a result of too much nerve activity in the stomach.
A person with IBS may have fluctuating hormones. During stress or anxiety, their hormones may not go back to normal levels affecting stomach bacteria creation meant to maintain bowel movements’ function. In some cases, people with IBS could be allergic to or be sensitive to certain foods as a result. The body’s immune response is affected when too many hormones are produced, leading to an allergic reaction to food. Sometimes chronic stress may lead to other stomach disorders or conditions due to an imbalance in stomach bacteria.
Understanding Your Symptoms
It is essential to understand your symptoms, possible causes, and how they affect your lifestyle so you can determine the best options for treatment. While each condition has similar symptoms, it helps to understand what happens when they occur so you can distinguish one from the other. IBS symptoms include bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, and stool that changes in appearance. Anxiety disorders may have nausea, restlessness, uneasiness, fear, panic, and shortness of breath.
It is common for people to experience IBS symptoms with a mental health concern such as anxiety or depression. A person with IBS may have flare-ups or worsening of their symptoms when suffering from anxiety. When symptoms become severe, they may include stomach pain and cramps. Medical experts do not believe one condition causes the other. Instead, the conditions tend to aggravate each other. Mental health conditions, such as panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could also affect IBS symptoms.
How to cope includes determining the best options to remedy your symptoms. It may consist of self-help techniques such as making lifestyle changes and talking to someone about your emotions through therapy. Knowing your symptoms and how they affect daily living should help you set goals to manage your symptoms.
How One Condition Could Worsen the Other
It is common for stress to worsen IBS symptoms, especially for depression, anxiety, or other types of mental disorders. Stress from situations such as a breakup, loss of a family member, or significant trauma may increase IBS severity. As a result, a person may experience changes to their intestinal tract and level of immunity of your immune system.
If you have anxiety, IBS could make symptoms worse when experiencing a flare-up from anxiety symptoms. Some experience more stomach cramps, abdominal discomfort, and bloating related to mental distress. Some develop persistent anxiety when dealing with stressful situations such as social conflict and finances.
Anxiety could contribute to IBS symptoms getting worse based on how the brain and the stomach communicate through the nervous system. Experts initially thought the fight or flight response might be behind IBS and anxiety being linked together, creating a heightened reaction to things in their environment. More likely, the communication between the brain and the digestive tract contributes more triggering symptoms of both.
What Are the Treatments for IBS and Anxiety?
Managing symptoms of anxiety and IBS requires long-term care. There is no cure for either, but there are many ways to control symptoms. How to treat your symptoms depends on the severity and personal goals. You may have symptoms that require more treatment than others, or you may need to make changes to your current course of treatment. Here are options to consider others found helpful.
Prescribed Medication. Antidepressants are common for anxiety to help control anxious thoughts and improve mood. Certain types are also helpful for IBS. For example, Tricyclic antidepressants have helped people with IBS manage abdominal pain related to diarrhea. SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors help manage anxiety symptoms and constipation.
Types of Therapy. Different therapy types are used to treat related symptoms, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and hypnotherapy. CBT is a form of talk therapy with approaches to managing thought patterns, stress, cognitive restructuring, and more. CBT helps patients develop healthy thought patterns to break those associated with IBS. Hypnotherapy can reduce IBS symptoms through relaxation and hypnosis. Some use this therapy along with psychotherapy to improve results for anxiety symptoms.
Dietary Adjustments. Sometimes changing your diet may help improve IBS symptoms. Some work with a dietitian to learn how to make healthy changes to their eating while meeting dietary needs. There are specialized diets that help reduce the risk of triggering specific symptoms. Others find that if they eliminate certain foods, it helps reduce not only IBS but also their anxiety symptoms.
Working closing with your doctor ensures your symptoms will get the attention they need. Your doctor may choose one or more of the previous options based on your needs and goals. Changes to your treatment plan may be necessary to ensure results. While those mentioned are the most common options, other things you can do include making changes to your self-care routine.
Managing your symptoms with a treatment plan is a step in the right direction. However, there are other things you can do to improve your symptoms while working on your goals. Improving your lifestyle overall may encourage better results from your treatment plan while making it easier to keep your symptoms under control. Here are some tips to consider:
- Limit the amount of media coverage consumed daily. While times are tough for many people, it can bring down your mood and energy following too much media. Stay up to date on what matters and follow credible sources. It is okay to take a time out from media, including social media channels and news coverage.
- Exercise to release stress and encourage regular physical productivity. Exercise releases hormones that help you feel good while keeping anxiety and depression symptoms away. It is also helpful for IBS to support the functioning of your organs.
- Know what foods to avoid that upset your stomach. Certain foods are known for creating abdominal discomfort and bloating, such as processed foods, caffeinated beverages, and alcohol, to name a few.
- Get plenty of sleep. Try getting into a sleep schedule or sleep routine. Plenty of rest helps you feel rested and ready to take on the day. If you experience IBS flare-ups, lack of sleep could be to blame.
- Talk about your feelings with someone you trust. Sometimes holding in the emotional pain leads to physical symptoms. Talk about what is bothering you to get things off your chest. You may get a helpful perspective on things.
- Practice stress relief and relaxation techniques. Doing things such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness help redirect your mental and physical energy to encourage calmness.
- Learn about alternative health techniques such as massage and acupuncture. People have gained relief for their symptoms of both conditions.
Knowing the best treatment options for IBS and anxiety includes understanding how each condition affects your body and your livelihood. Each condition presents challenges that make it challenging to complete daily tasks or responsibilities, but you can get help. Your treatment plan and self-help strategies help you be in control of your symptoms. In many cases, it helps improve results.
Keeping stress levels low may help with IBS and anxiety, but it may not be the sole cause. Learning how to reduce stress makes a difference. Keep your doctor up to date on your progress by keeping your appointments. Ask questions and bring up concerns about your medication, including side effects.
You can take control of your life and do what is necessary to feel better. You have options that include working with a doctor or specialist, practicing healthy living, and ensure you know who to talk to when you need help or advice.