Does IBS cause anxiety?

Having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) doesn’t make it any easier to deal with anxiety, panic, and related conditions 


October 14, 2022

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May 2, 2024

Mental Health
Mental Health

A slamming pulse, hair-trigger nerves, an impending sense of doom – the symptoms of anxiety are unfortunately common, affecting about 40 million Americans. As you might guess, having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) doesn’t make it any easier to deal with anxiety, panic, and related conditions. 

Here’s a question though: could IBS actually cause anxiety? 

The relationship between anxiety and IBS: it’s complicated 

Researchers have recently been paying a lot of attention to the potential links between anxiety disorders and IBS. So far, they’ve found that people with anxiety are about twice as likely to develop IBS, and that people with IBS are also more likely to become anxious. It’s likely that multiple factors impact the relationship between IBS and anxiety, and that IBS and anxiety influence each other as well. 

How IBS can make you anxious

If you have IBS, you may also: 

  • Spend a lot of time every day figuring out what to eat or how to order at restaurants, adding up to a lot of food-related worrying
  • Need to know the location of every bathroom you might need, requiring extensive planning and possible concerns about being too far from a toilet 
  • Find that IBS can be difficult to explain to others, contributing to social tension and to anxiousness about feeling embarrassed or not taken seriously

At any time, your IBS may “go rogue,” meaning you can almost never stop thinking about it. That constant awareness and need to track so many details of your day could be enough to spur on anxiety and even panic attacks

How anxiety and IBS both change your brain

People who are stressed or who have anxiety or IBS often have brains and bodies that are very highly attuned to potential threats. It’s normal to have a mind and body that try hard to protect you from potential problems (that’s a good thing, actually!) But if you’ve already undergone a lot of stress or challenging experiences, it’s more likely that:

  • Your brain fast-tracks negative thoughts and potential threat signals. Over time, all that stress and worry can cause digestive issues
  • Eventually your threat detection and reporting systems become very sensitive, meaning it’s easy for even a “minor” trigger to set off a cascade of emergency reactions in your body, including increased adrenaline and decreased digestion
  • You may become stuck in repetitive loops of anxiousness and gastrointestinal distress that feed each other 

After multiple cycles of stress and worry, you may notice that you get sick more easily, feel irritable more often, may feel more “blue” or depressed than usual, and may get tired quicker and stay fatigued for longer. These are all red flags of suffering from always being on high alert.  

How the same genes may influence both anxiety and IBS

At least six genetic arrangements (loci) are related to developing IBS, a recent study shows. These same genetic loci may influence your susceptibility to anxiety, depression, and negative mood conditions in general. While these genetic patterns don’t mean you will develop anxiety or IBS for sure, they do make you more vulnerable to both conditions. 

Why IBS and anxiety resemble each other

It can sometimes be tough to tell if a particular symptom is stemming from anxiety or from IBS. Apprehension, restlessness, fatigue, and trouble sleeping, to name just a few, can characterize either condition, for example. Either way, it’s natural to feel anxious about the demands of dealing with IBS, just as worrying about something stressful going on in your life can twist your stomach into knots. 

As Dr. Emeran Mayer reminds us, the mind and body are deeply interconnected, which means they influence each other in multiple ways. Your digestive system is very attuned to any mental stress you’re going through and vice versa. As Dr. Mayer puts it, IBS  and anxiety could be viewed as “two sides of the same coin,” meaning that instead of one condition causing the other, they may both indicate the same underlying issues. 

How to handle anxiety and IBS

No matter why you’re having to deal with both anxiety and IBS, there are several potential ways to feel better. Many of these strategies have to do with breaking the cycle of IBS and anxiety. For example: 

  • Chew gum, since studies have confirmed that the act of chewing helps soothe anxiousness (if you’re a smoker, consider subbing gum for cigarettes)
  • Exercise (at least 20 minutes a day if possible) to make it easier to endure stress and curb anxiety while also taming IBS. A walk outside can really help
  • Try mindfulness, which has been scientifically shown to reduce anxiety, including the racing heartbeat you may get when you feel worried
  • Consider functional medicine, advocated by Dr. Mark Hyman as a way of balancing both your body and mind so they can work together better
  • Get professional support from a qualified team of experts, including a health coach to support you in changing behaviors that might contribute to IBS, clinical guidance, and therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy to address anxiety and IBS

Get more support from Salvo Health

At Salvo Health, our digital healthcare platform and virtual clinic provides you with continuous text-based support and care for your chronic condition. Imagine being able to text a board-certified Physician or Behavioral Health Coach to avoid flare-ups or manage your pain. Alongside messaging-based communication, members receive a customized Care Plan that can take account of how their symptoms can be managed, no matter what FODMAPs they eat. 

Get immediate access to a coordinated Salvo Health care team, including a certified gastro specialist and board-certified health coach when you join Salvo Health today.

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