It sounds odd, but your gut has what you can call a brain of its own. It's the enteric nervous system. And it's the reason you get butterflies in your stomach when you're nervous. This "second brain" controls how you digest food. It also constantly talks with your actual brain. That connection may help you manage your IBS.
Strong emotions like stress, anxiety, and depression trigger chemicals in the brain that turn on pain signals in your gut. Those emotions don't cause IBS. But when people with it get stressed, their colons react strongly.
Research shows that tending to your mental health may help improve your symptoms. A combination of medical and psychological care can be more effective for IBS than medical care alone.
What You Can Do at Home
One of the basic things you can do is to get enough sleep. When you don't, you're more likely to feel stressed.
Other tools can also help curb your anxiety and stress:
- Exercise. Walking, running, swimming, and other physical activities can reduce stress and depression. They also help your bowels contract in a more normal way instead of overreacting.
- Mind-body exercises. Meditation, relaxation breathing, yoga, tai chi, and Qi Gong can all trigger your body's relaxation response.
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction class and meditation. You can find courses offered online and in person, often at universities. They help you learn to manage stress by changing the way you think. Or you can learn to meditate online, in a class, or from a book.
- Relaxation breathing exercises. Sometimes a change in your breathing patterns can help you restore calm.
When to See a Therapist
Any illness can cause you stress and wear you down emotionally. With IBS, worry and anxiety create a loop that can make your symptoms even worse. You may decide you need help managing your stress and anxiety.
A therapist can teach you how to break the mind-body cycle that may be making your IBS symptoms worse. She can also help you come up with strategies to handle your triggers and ways to better deal with challenging situations.
Therapies to treat IBS focus mainly on behavior. They typically look at how your thoughts and feelings are preventing you from dealing with your IBS effectively.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a type of talk therapy. You work through common situations that trigger your symptoms and learn to handle them in different ways. For instance, if the idea of eating at a restaurant makes you anxious, CBT can help you recognize the thoughts and patterns you have and teach you how to spot and change them.
Psychodynamic therapy. This type of talk therapy looks at how your emotions affect IBS. Your therapist will typically focus on relaxation techniques and stress management.
Hypnotherapy. Therapists use hypnosis to put you in a very relaxed state. That lets you be more open to hearing positive ways to work with stress and change behaviors. You'll still be awake and you can't be made to do anything against your will.
Relaxation training. There are many ways to calm your nervous system and lower your stress levels. One method is progressive relaxation. With it, you work your way through your body, tightening and then releasing your muscles. Over time, you learn to tell the difference between feeling tensed and feeling relaxed. Then you can use the technique to calm yourself.
- Biofeedback. With biofeedback, a doctor connects you to a device that gives you information on what's happening in your body. You use that information to make changes. For example, it can help you gain better control over the muscles that control your bowels.