It is not entirely clear how stress, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are related -- or which one comes first -- but studies show they tend to co-exist.
"If you do diagnostic interviews, what you find is that about 60% of IBS patients will meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders," says Edward Blanchard, PhD, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany.
The most common mental ailment suffered by people with IBS is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), says Blanchard. He suspects that more than 60% of IBS patients with a psychiatric illness have GAD. Another 20% have depression, and the rest have other disorders.
Regardless of whether they have IBS, people with anxiety tend to worry greatly about issues such as health, money, or careers, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Other symptoms include stomach upset, trembling, muscle aches, insomnia, dizziness, and irritability.
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 a deep breathing or visualization, where they image a peaceful scene. Others reduce stress by doing something enjoyable, such as talking to a friend, reading, listening to music, or shopping.
Try out different stress management techniques to see which may help ease your IBS symptoms. If you still find yourself stressed and anxious, talk with your doctor. Make sure you're getting proper medical treatment for IBS-related constipation and diarrhea. Then discuss whether you might benefit from seeing a mental health professional.
People with IBS "should really start with their primary care physician, and work with that person," says Blanchard. "They should only go the next step (psychological care) if what they're doing with their doctor is not working."