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Can Anxiety Cause IBS?


The exact cause of IBS is unknown, however, it has been linked to stress, among other things. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) impacts the digestive system and can cause symptoms such as bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhoea and constipation. These symptoms often come and go over time, but can last for days, weeks or months.

Why Can Anxiety Cause IBS?

As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. It’s primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases the stress chemicals cortisol and adrenaline and activates the stress response called the fight, flight or freeze response. 

Your gut and brain communicate with each other through The Gut-Brain Axis, meaning there is a bidirectional link between the central nervous system (CNS) and the gut’s enteric nervous system (ENS). In other words, how you feel can impact your gut and vice versa. The stress responses can cause changes in the gut and so can aggravate or cause IBS.

For example, the stress response also prompts your body to divert blood flow away from your intestines towards your vital organs, such as your lungs and heart, which causes your intestinal movement to slow down. The stress response can also suppress digestion and digestive enzymes as well as cause stomach muscles to tighten. Such changes can worsen or cause IBS symptoms. 

Also, if you experience stress and anxiety frequently, you can develop chronic stress, also known as hyperstimulation, which is when your stress response is on high alert for a prolonged period of time, long after the perceived threat has passed. Hyperstimulation can cause prolonged digestive system disruptions, which can also cause IBS.



How Can I Stop This Symptom?

IBS is often a lifelong problem which can be frustrating to live with. However, don’t be disheartened as treatments such as medication are available, so consult your doctor. 

You can also use therapeutic techniques such as anxiety-reducing breathing techniques, like controlled diaphragmatic breathing or box breathing. This should calm your central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and deactivate our fight, flight or freeze response allowing our rational brain to kick back in and regain a semblance of control and feel the black cloud lift. It may also help to accept your IBS symptoms, rather than resisting or fighting them. 

Though this will help short-term, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety and stress occurring in the first place, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety and stress. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information. 

As IBS symptoms can also have other causes, make sure to consult your doctor to be sure of the root cause.