Managing stress levels is an important part of treating IBS. The central nervous system and digestive tract share a bidirectional relationship –our mental states (e.g., mood, perceived stress, anxiety) are influenced by the physical, chemical and immune processes of the gut. In turn, the brain can trigger changes in gut motility, permeability, secretion, and our sensitivity to sensations within the gut (i.e., visceral sensitivity).High levels of stress can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, whether a person has IBS or not –psychological distress can cause irregular spasming in the gut, resulting in abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea, or constipation. Further, stress has been found to increase sensation in the large bowel. It is unsurprising then that stress can trigger and exacerbate IBS symptoms. This relationship can create a cycle where stress exacerbates gastrointestinal issues, which in turn creates further stress.
There are countless strategies to reduce stress and you will develop your own unique combination of stress management techniques based on what works best for you. The following ideasare a good starting point:
- Talk to close friends or family members
- Exercising (e.g., team sport, going to the gym, taking a brisk walk around the block)
- Meditation or relaxation techniques (e.g., deep breathing)
- Do something you find totally engrossing (e.g., reading a new book from your favourite author, practicing an instrument) – encourage you to be ‘present’ and avoid unnecessary worry or rumination
Stress is a normal part of life, but it can spiral into a more serious mental disorder if left unchecked. To get the most out of stress management techniques, it helps to take the time to assess your stress levels regularly. As we become absorbed into the activities of daily life, we can sometimes forget to notice how we are feeling. If things feel ‘out of control’ or you feel that you don’t have the ability to cope, then it is a good idea to consult with a mental health professional (your doctor can help with this).