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The Link Between Anxiety and IBS

Can you relate to the feeling of "butterflies" in your stomach, or some people refer to as a "nervous stomach" before events such as your first day of school, a new job, a presentation, a date, or other events? This is an example of short term anxiety that triggers our "flight or fight" response, that quickly reduces the blood flow from our stomach to our extremities causing the "fluttery" feeling. But what happens to our body when we experience more chronic stressors or anxiety?

What is Anxiety?

As noted above, most of us go through occasional experiences of anxiety. But many experience more chronic forms of anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the United States, effecting nearly 19% of the population over 18 years of age, and is highly treatable. People with anxiety disorders often experience intense, extensive, persistent worry or fear per Mayo Clinic. These feelings and fears can interfere with daily life, and that can lead to avoiding situations or places to avoid these fears. There are different types of anxiety, and different symptoms such as:

  • Increased heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Nausea

  • Feeling tense

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Difficulty Concentrating

  • Gastrointestinal issues

These symptoms and severity of symptoms vary person to person.

How Stress and Anxiety Impacts the Gut:

There is a link between the gut and the brain, referred to as the gut-brain axis. The gut-brain axis consists of bidirectional communication between the central and the enteric nervous system, linking our emotions and intestinal functions. Studies have shown that stress makes an impact on our gut motility, sensitivity, and gastrointestinal microbiome.

This chronic stress or anxiety, causes the brain to release stress hormones that can cause your intestines to become inflamed, altering your gut bacteria, leading to abdominal pain, and altered bowel movements.

On the reversal, IBS symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and altered bowel movements that can also increase stress and anxiety. When you have a strong urge to use the restroom, everyday places or travel can feel risky, and may find yourself avoiding social situations as a result. Often food fears and loss of pleasure in eating occur, as well as limited eating in fear of an IBS attack. This vicious cycle can lead to feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety. So, if our gut microbiome is altered from IBS it could be linked to alterations to our mood and increased anxiety. This is likely due to the bacteria in our gut also manufactures over 90% of our serotonin that impacts our mood and intestinal activity.

How to Manage IBS and Anxiety:

If you experience IBS and/or anxiety, you do not need to go about managing this alone. Seeking professional help can provide you with the best tools and resources to give you the confidence and support needed to best manage both. After all, you don't need MORE stress added to your life.

Along with modifying your diet to control your IBS, you should also focus attention on a stress management plan, such as:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): CBT is done with a licensed counselor who helps to reshape negative or inaccurate thoughts, and provides tools to help manage stress or fears. Talk with your doctor for a referral or check out resources such as TalkSpace or BetterHelp.

Gut Directed Hypnotherapy: Monash University article discusses the successes hypnotherapy has for people with IBS.

Exercise: Moving your body whether through gentle exercise such as yoga or walking, or if you enjoy higher intensity exercises can all help to alter your mental state and likely improve your gut microbiome. Try to get in a habit of frequent exercise whether its taking your dog for a walk or joining a gym.

Make a List: I suggest making a list of things you can remove from your calendar that cause you stress, and add in something that will decrease your stress such as exercise, coffee with a friend, or just time to yourself to unwind.

Unplug and Meditate: Set a time to unplug from electronics, especially social media. Instead, set aside time to meditate to help keep you centered and learn techniques to keep your mind and body relaxed. This does take practice, so check out tools such as Headspace to help walk you through guided exercises, videos, music and more.

Remember, it's a gradual process. Give yourself grace and take it step by step, moment by moment. Don't be afraid to seek out support you need to manage your IBS or anxiety.

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