ibs and anxiety

How can something physical upset something mental? How can something mental control something physical? These impacts happen because your body and your mind are intimately connected. We’ve known about this bond for thousands of years but it remains a challenging fact to fully comprehend.

Though it may be difficult to understand it, understand it you must. Your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is highly influenced by your anxiety. In turn, your anxiety is highly influenced by your IBS. When working with you, your symptoms can be minimized and easily contained. When working against you, your IBS and anxiety can spiral out of control while making even the simplest daily tasks seem like major chores.

To remedy the cycle, you must work to increase your knowledge of the brain-gut connection, take practical steps to improve your IBS symptoms and find the best stress-busting techniques to contain anxiety.

Brain-Gut Connection

The brain-gut connection is how professionals describe the link between what is going on in your mind and what is going on in your digestive system. People see the connection played out in their everyday lives.

Even when you were younger, you would feel a bit queasy right before a big test or preparing for a first date. Your anxiety changed your digestive system by increasing your stomach acid (among other changes) which led to a slightly nauseous feeling.

From an evolutionary perspective, when our ancestors were in danger, stress triggered the “fight or flight” response to preserve safety. During this response, blood flow and energies are diverted away from digestion and into muscle groups to assist with the battle or the act of running away from the danger. These are examples of your brain controlling your gut.

The connection works from the gut to the brain as well. If you are experiencing some digestive distress, your stress and anxiety will grow due to discomfort, fear of public embarrassment or another exaggerated fear. The physical response will trigger the psychological reaction. The cycle continues back to the gut while the situation escalates. All symptoms will become more frequent and more intense.

Your brain is part of your central nervous system (CNS) and your gut is your enteric nervous system (ENS). Your ENS is made of up hundreds of millions of nerves that stretch from your esophagus to the rectum. Some people call the ENS the “brain in your gut” because it does so much to control and manage what happens in the area including swallowing, the release of enzymes that break down foods you eat, control of blood flow that helps absorb the vital nutrition you need and eliminating the waste after you’ve used everything you need. The CNS and ENS talk to each other and keeping the conversation smooth is a necessity.

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About 20% of people will have IBS during their lifetime. Of those people, the majority (some reports claim up to 90%) will also have an anxiety disorder like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or agoraphobia. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if the IBS created the anxiety or the anxiety created the IBS.

This information can seem overwhelming or difficult to understand, but to summarize, your brain and your digestive system talk to each other constantly. Smooth communication leads to smooth digestion and no anxiety. When one of the systems becomes upset, the messages get confused leading to digestive and anxious symptoms.

Solving the Problem

There are many useful interventions available to help you manage your IBS and anxiety. Some of the interventions will target one issue or the other while the first-level responses should be the ones that effectively treat both issues. This combination treatment provides you with a high level of efficiency. You get more bang for your buck.

To begin, you must consider the impact of your eating, sleeping and exercise patterns on your symptoms. Diet is something that everyone with IBS must observe, inspect and work to modify as needed. In many ways, IBS is a very individualized illness because foods that are major triggers for some people will not be a problem for other people.

Tracking your food intake and IBS symptoms will give you a good starting point. From there, reduce or remove foods like chocolate, specific spices, fruits, beans, cabbage, alcohol, cauliflower, broccoli, milk and others that seem to be a problem.

Now that some negatives have been removed, add positive, healthy foods into your life. Eating nutritious, balanced meals full of fiber can improve your IBS symptoms and anxiety. Many people feel anxious as blood sugar levels change in their bodies. By eating meals with more protein, blood sugar levels can remain level leading to less anxiety.

Restful sleep is so needed and so overlooked by people dealing with IBS and anxiety. People spend hours wasting their time trying things to feel better while the best remedy might be a good night’s sleep. Refuse to be one of those people. Track your sleep to determine your daily average. If the number is low, find better options to increase the quality and quantity of your sleep, like skipping naps and changing your bedroom environment.

If your number is too high (generally 10 hours or more), look at the effects of your sleep. Are you using sleep as a way to avoid real life and your symptoms? Are you escaping from reality? Focus on healthy sleep.

Exercise might be the best anxiety reducer ever created. Physical activity can calm your body and your mind. Walking for 30 minutes per day can help smooth the communication between the brain and the gut to limit IBS and anxious symptoms. For a bonus, get your friends and family in on the activity to add socialization into the mix. Exercise is usually more fun in groups.

Exercise is good to strengthen your body, but relaxation is equally important for your IBS and anxiety. Good relaxation techniques work on your mind, your body or both. With IBS, it probably feels like your body is working against you a lot of the time. Working to add relaxation into your life can help your body work with you again.

Stress has a strong ability to change the way you think and see the world, so find ways to relax your mind and slow your thinking. Anxiety has a way of speeding up your thinking, which makes it harder to focus on one thought at a time. Meditation, autogenic training and guided imagery are all good options. Yoga combines the best of relaxing your mind, relaxing your body and exercising into one skill, but any relaxation will help with the communication between your brain and gut.

It turns out that you might have two brains instead of one. The first is in your head carrying on all of the logical processes while the other is deep in your core assisting with another set of operations. All of the people that talk about “gut instincts,” “gut feelings” and “going with your gut” may have known what they were talking about after all. You may want to pay more attention to what your gut is telling you.

Read more about relaxation techniques for stress relief over at NewLifeOutlook.