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IBS and Anxiety Disorders

IBS and Anxiety Disorders
Exploring the impact of IBS on mental health

IBS - The little acronym that provokes anxiety in suffers by its very mention. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common digestive problem that affects one in five Australians at some point during their lives.

IBS is a dysfunction of the large bowel that is characterised by abdominal pain, bloating, gas and constipation or diarrhoea. The causes of IBS are relatively unknown, however, stress, poor diet, food intolerances, medications and infections are all triggers for an episode.  Symptoms might include:


Why talk about IBS in the context of anxiety?

Aside from its physical symptoms, IBS also has many psychological impacts that often go undiscussed. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, living with IBS can be anxiety-provoking. There are always so many thoughts running through your head. What happens if an episode strikes and there’s no toilet nearby? What do you do if you’re at work, school, or out somewhere and it hits? What about if you wake up to an episode in the morning? How do you hide your pain and constant trips to the toilet from everyone around you? How do you make it through the day when you are feeling sick or are in so much pain you just want to crawl into bed and be alone? The list is endless as IBS symptoms have a way of making every minute of your day a potential problem.

We also know that there is a connection between the brain and the gut. When we are feeling anxious or stressed there are physical symptoms that we experience in our gut. Whilst anxiety and stress don’t cause IBS, they can make its symptoms worse or episodes more frequent. This can also extend to the pain experienced by suffers. Recent studies have shown that individuals who suffer from functional gut disorders such as IBS perceive pain more intensely than others and in times of stress and anxiety, their pain can appear to be even worse than it normally is.

But what about if you also have an anxiety disorder? Your IBS is yet another thing to add to the list of triggers for your anxiety. Yet, when your anxiety is triggered or you are stressed, you may experience an IBS episode or your symptoms may become worse. Each of these illnesses is feeding the other. The IBS is making your anxiety worse, but your anxiety is making your IBS worse. This is a very difficult situation to be in, but with the right strategies and guidance it can be managed quite well.

Several studies have found that psychological-based approaches to treating IBS had better outcomes than those which used conventional medical treatments alone. The most important thing you can do for yourself is to learn to manage your stress and anxiety. There are many different ways you can do this. Some individuals may find that their existing strategies work very well, but for others the combination of IBS and anxiety may make some strategies ineffective.


Here are some techniques to start with for treating IBS :

Meditation and Mindfulness

Your mind is a very powerful tool. Learning how to calm your thoughts and ease tension through these techniques is a great way to manage stress and anxiety. Both are fantastic tools to have as you can take them with you wherever you may be. There are some differences between these two practices so you may need to experiment to find which works best for you. They aren’t always easy at first, but the more you practice, the better you will become.


Exercise has many benefits. It gets you moving, it occupies your mind and it gives you time to you clear you head. Whilst exercise is great, your IBS symptoms may get in the way of leaving the house or heading to the gym. When this happens, going for a walk around the backyard, your street or even through your house can be a great alternative.


It’s important you have a routine when it comes to eating. Eating at similar times every day and avoiding sudden changes to this routine is key to keeping your gut regulated. This way, not only do you know the times you need to be near a bathroom, but your gut knows what to expect and when.

See a psychologist or counsellor

There are several psychotherapies that can be used to help you combat negative behaviours you may have developed or to help you remain calm and relaxed to help relieve symptom intensity. A mental health professional will be able to advise you of your options and what is best for you.

Speak with your doctor

Lastly, as with any medical condition or mental health concern, you should always speak with your doctor about the strategies and solutions that are right for you. Your doctor can work with you through the diagnostic process and treatments available to find what works for best for you. They can also help you with the mental health aspects of your IBS diagnosis and work alongside your mental health professionals to develop coping and management strategies to help you on your road to recovery.

Written by Stephanie, ADAVIC Volunteer




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