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Stress, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

Stress may play a part in triggering a person's irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, symptoms. This doesn’t  mean that IBS is purely 'in the mind'. 

Psychological factors, such as stress and anxiety can cause chemical changes in the body that can affect processes like those that occur in the digestive system.

The discomfort, inconvenience and pain from IBS can also affect a person's mental health, with around three out of four people with IBS experiencing depression at some stage, and half having the unease and worry of generalised anxiety disorder or GAD.

Anxiety and IBS

There are several theories about the connection between IBS and stress and anxiety:

  • Although psychological problems such as anxiety do not cause IBS, 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.

Coping with stress and anxiety

There's proof that stress management can help prevent or ease IBS symptoms. Some people use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualisation, where they imagine a peaceful scene. Others reduce stress by doing something enjoyable, such as talking to a friend, reading, listening to music, or shopping.

Regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and eating a good diet for IBS also helps reduce tension.

Try out different stress management techniques to see which help ease your IBS symptoms. If you still find yourself stressed and anxious, seek medical advice. Make sure you're getting proper medical treatment for IBS-related constipation and diarrhoea. Then discuss whether you might benefit from seeing a mental health professional. Experts say that people with IBS should really start with their doctor and work with that person. They should only go the next step (psychological care) if what they're doing with their doctor is not working.

Considering therapy and support for IBS

Experts say two-thirds of IBS sufferers tend to get better with changes in diet and medication. The other third, people with more severe symptoms, are good candidates for psychological help.

Behavioural therapy has been shown to relieve some IBS symptoms in most people who try it. This broad term covers a variety of therapies, including relaxation therapy, hypnosis, cognitive behavioural therapy, and traditional psychotherapy. Therapy has limitations, however. Some studies have found it does not help relieve constipation or constant stomachaches that come with IBS.

Another option is to attend a self-help group for people with IBS or other digestive disorders. Members of these groups know what it's like to live with IBS. Sometimes they can offer more meaningful support than you could get from even your closest friends.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on July 02, 2014

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