IBS and Anxiety: Is IBS Linked to Anxiety?

Jan 06, 2022 IBS/Cramps

Irritable Bowels Syndrome (IBS) is a common gut disorder, thought to affect 1 in 10 people. IBS can cause mild to severe abdominal pain, bloating, increased gas, constipation, diarrhoea and changes to bowel movements. The exact cause of IBS is not known and the condition is usually diagnosed when other illnesses have been ruled out.

In many cases, it is common for IBS and anxiety to occur together. Doctors report that one of the most common mental disorders alongside IBS in individuals is a generalised anxiety disorder. Whether IBS causes anxiety or anxiety causes IBS is not confirmed but there are theories for both ways.

The IBS and Anxiety Connection

People with anxiety often worry a lot more than the average person about health, money and everyday issues or situations. When a person is feeling anxious, physical symptoms often occur too such as muscle tightness, upset stomach, insomnia, and irritability, similar to the symptoms of IBS.

High levels of stress, caused by anxiety or other external factors, are known IBS symptom triggers. Many people with IBS report experiencing more frequent symptoms or worsening symptoms during stressful or anxiety-ridden periods. So stress and anxiety aggravate IBS however, does it cause the condition? 

IBS, Anxiety and The Nervous System

A major theory of the IBS and anxiety connection is based on the role of the nervous system. Abnormalities in the nerves in your digestive system can cause greater discomfort when your muscles stretch to pass gas or stools, pain being a common symptom of IBS. 

Strong emotions like anxiety and stress, can trigger chemicals in the brain that turn on the pain signals between the brain and the gut, which could cause the colon to react. These poorly coordinated signals can cause your body to overreact to normal changes in the digestive system and can result in pain, discomfort, constipation or diarrhoea. 

In other words, anxiety can cause faster and more frequent pain signals from the brain, down the spine to the digestive system. These additional signals can cause the pain that individuals experience with IBS and create a sensitive bowel. 

IBS, Anxiety and Muscle Spasms

Another factor that is thought to play a role in the cause of IBS is the muscular contractions in the intestine. As food is digested, it is passed through the intestines which are lined with muscles that contrast as food moves through the digestive system. If the contractions are stronger or last longer, these can cause bloating, gas and affect your stool passage.

Anxiety makes the mind more aware of contractions, and any spasms in the colon and intestines, which is argued to be the cause of IBS, as it makes you feel and experience movements and pain more intensely. 

IBS Causing Anxiety

As well as anxiety being argued as the cause or main trigger for IBS, it is possible that IBS is causing anxiety. As a condition that affects the bowels, it can come with some pretty inconvenient symptoms and ones that people don’t like to talk about. This can cause people to have anxiety around visiting the toilet, both in public places or visiting friends. In a large number of people, IBS symptoms can be triggered by eating certain foods. This can also cause anxiety in individuals regarding eating out or at friends, due to them having to avoid certain foods and if they don’t, the worry of the consequences. 

If anxiety triggers IBS symptoms, but an individual also has anxiety about their IBS, it is easy to be caught in a cycle between the two. 

So, is there a link between IBS and anxiety?

It is clear to see that there is a link between IBS and anxiety. There is evidence that keeping a calm mind, and anxieties and stress at bay can significantly reduce IBS symptoms and flare-ups. Whether anxiety causes IBS or triggers symptoms is still very much debatable as studies and research continue.

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