It's not totally clear how stress, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome are related -- or which one comes first -- but studies show they can happen together.
When a doctor talks to people with this digestive disorder, "what you find is that about 60% of IBS patients will meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders," says Edward Blanchard, PhD, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany.
The most common mental ailment people with irritable bowel syndrome have is generalized anxiety disorder, Blanchard says. He thinks more than 60% of IBS patients with a psychiatric illness have that type of anxiety. Another 20% have depression, and the rest have other disorders.
Regardless of whether they have irritable bowel syndrome, people with anxiety tend to worry greatly about issues such as health, money, or careers. Other symptoms include upset stomach, trembling, muscle aches, insomnia, dizziness, and irritability.
There are several theories about the connection between IBS, stress, and anxiety:
- Although psychological problems like anxiety don’t cause the digestive disorder, people with IBS may be more sensitive to emotional troubles.
- Stress and anxiety may make the mind more aware of spasms in the colon.
- IBS may be triggered by the immune system, which is affected by stress.
Ways to Cope With Stress and Anxiety
There's proof that keeping your stress under control can help you prevent or ease IBS symptoms. You could learn about relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualization, where you imagine a peaceful scene. Or you can zap tension by simply doing something fun -- talk to a friend, read, listen to music, or go shopping.
It's also a great idea to exercise, get enough sleep, and eat a good diet for IBS.
Try different stress-busting techniques to see which may help ease your IBS symptoms.
If you’re still tense and anxious, talk with your doctor. Make sure you're getting the right medical treatment for your constipation or diarrhea. Then discuss whether talk therapy might help.
People with irritable bowel syndrome "should really start with their primary care physician, and work with that person," Blanchard says. "They should only go the next step [psychological care] if what they're doing with their doctor is not working."