The idea that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is linked to stress is not new. A growing body of evidence shows that there is a link between IBS and stress or anxiety,  although this is not the same as saying IBS is all in the mind.

National Stress Awareness Day – 1 November 2017

With 1 November 2017 being National Stress Awareness Day in the UK, we focused this article on the link between Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and stress or anxiety, to raise awareness and provide guidance on how to get help. 

Stress and anxiety can cause chemical changes in the body. These can affect bodily processes such as digestion. Naturally, once someone is suffering from the pain and discomfort of IBS, this can impact on their mental health, leading to an on-going cycle of unpleasant physical symptoms and psychological distress.

Statistics suggest that three out of four people with IBS experience depression at some stage. Half are believed to have generalised anxiety disorder.

Exactly how stress and IBS are linked is unclear. Stress doesn’t cause IBS otherwise everyone who is stressed would have it. Some people suggest that IBS sufferers might be more sensitive to stress and anxiety.

Another theory is that spasms in the colon may be more noticeable when the mind is experiencing stress. Some studies suggest that IBS may be triggered by the immune system, which is susceptible to stress.

Diagnosing IBS

The advice from IBS specialists is to see a doctor if you are suffering from any of the following symptoms which may indicate IBS:

  • Stomach ache which may be relieved by having a poo
  • A change in bowel habits, with diarrhoea or constipation or both
  • Bloating and swelling of the stomach
  • Excessive wind
  • A feeling that you may not have completely emptied your bowels after going to the toilet

Your doctor will need to rule out other more serious conditions and confirm a diagnosis of IBS. They will normally recommend a colonoscopy in order to do this.

Once diagnosed, your doctor will be able to advise you on stress management and medication.




What is stress?

Stress is a normal response in the body. It is essential for our health and survival. It can arise from a perceived or actual event – anything, in fact, that disturbs the delicate balance between body and mind.

Stress can occur without any obvious feelings of distress and it can be short-lived (acute) or more long-term (lasting more than three months).

Scientists believe that when someone develops IBS they are experiencing an increased gastrointestinal response to stress. All kinds of things can trigger stress that might cause IBS.

There may be physical factors (illness, infection, surgery) and/or psychological factors (such as loss of job, divorce, history of abuse).

Managing IBS

Whatever the reason behind it, the fact is that stress and IBS appear to be linked and the symptoms of IBS can contribute to on-going psychological distress. So, what can be done to help?

Stress management techniques have been shown to prevent or ease IBS symptoms. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation or visualisation (imagining a peaceful, relaxing scenario) are effective for some people.

Making time in your busy life for relaxation and fun is an important component of stress management, whether it is socialising, shopping or yoga. 

Regular exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet and getting enough sleep are also good ways of reducing tension and can help to improve both physical and emotional wellbeing.

In two thirds of cases, IBS sufferers get better with change in diet, better stress management and medication. The other third may benefit from talking to a mental health professional or joining a self-help group.

Behavioural therapies – relaxation therapy, hypnosis, cognitive behavioural therapy, and traditional psychotherapy – are effective at relieving some IBS symptoms but may not help with constipation or stomach ache.

Self-help groups can be particularly effective as other people in the group will be experiencing many of the same symptom and can share effective ways of managing the problem, as well as offering support and understanding.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.