• Hattie Gladwell

Why treating your anxiety is an important way of managing your digestive health

Although irritable bowel syndrome is not a psychological disorder in itself, according to Anxiety UK it has come to be closely linked with both stress and anxiety. Alongside actually causing both of these mental health issues, feeling stressed, nervous or anxious can actually cause IBS to become worse - with even people who do not have the condition finding themselves needing to go to the toilet when experiencing these emotions.

According to an article published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, having IBS actually results in disturbances in the balance between your brain and gut. Stress and anxiety can actually trigger overactivity of your gut - which can cause diarrhoea. It can also slow down or even stop the digestive processes in your stomach - which can cause constipation, gas and abdominal pain.

Anxiety disorders and bowel conditions

While both anxiety disorders and bowel conditions like IBS are common - and often debilitating - it can feel impossible when both come together.

With that in mind, it’s important to treat your anxiety. Not just for your digestive health, but for your mental wellbeing, too. Whether it’s anxiety causing bowel issues, or whether it’s your bowel issues causing your anxiety, getting treatment for your anxiety can help to ease - and control - your bowel symptoms; whether that’s decreasing the amount you need the toilet when you are anxious, or the worsening of IBD symptoms.

While both IBS and anxiety are common conditions, it is unfair when you have to deal with them - especially when they both come together. And regardless of severity, every experience is valid.

There are many treatments out there for anxiety - but I’m not going to beat around the bush or dupe you into thinking they are affordable or available to everyone. If you have the means, seeking private talking therapy can be incredibly helpful, both for managing anxiety and dealing with anything else in your life that is causing you psychological distress. Therapists can be expensive, but counselling is one of the cheaper avenues. It is not only available privately, but also through charities such as Mind. If you feel this could be helpful to you, it is worth finding out whether there is any free counselling available in your area.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is another way to learn to manage your anxiety. Focusing on current problems instead of your past, CBT is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. The NHS website describes it as being based on the concept that ‘your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle. CBT has a great success rate but can be pricey. It is available through the NHS, but those who have already sought help for mental health issues on the NHS knows, it can be a lengthy process. However, there are other sources of CBT out there - such as on apps and through online services.

Getting the right resources to help your IBS

The best first step to take is to book an appointment with your GP to talk about how you’re feeling, and how your bowels are being affected. Not only do they have the resources to help you and advise you or prescribe medication to help - as well as referring you for psychological help - it can also be an opportunity to be referred for testing to see if there is anything more sinister going on with your bowels.

As someone with a chronic bowel disease, I can use the toilet up to 10 times a day. While this is caused by the fact that I no longer have a large bowel due to perforation, anxiety can make it so much worse. Just the idea of leaving the house can make me panic; worrying that I’ll desperately need the toilet while I’m out, resulting in an accident. Social events get me especially worked up, and I’ve often found myself cancelling simply because my bowels will flare up on the day out of worry.

I am lucky to have found a therapist who agreed to reduce her hourly rate to ensure I got some help (and I definitely think this is worth bringing up with any potential therapists), who has helped me work through some of the anxiety I’ve built up around my bowel habits. While it hasn’t ‘cured’ me, it’s helped me learn how to deal with the anxiety as it comes, as well as working out ways to decrease the anxiety around certain issues.

For instance, seeking out the nearest toilets ahead of when you’re leaving the house can be a helpful way to reduce the anxiety around having an accident - it’s a little pressure off of your shoulders that can ease your mind. Ordering a radar key so that I can use the disabled toilets for privacy has also made using public toilets easier. And, if I can do something anxiety-inducing such as a meeting over a video call from home, I don’t have to put myself through added stress.

Working out my trigger foods has also been a helpful way for me to manage my symptoms - which helps with my anxiety in the process.

Alongside the professional help and management of symptoms, I also think it’s healthy to practise self-care, too. And that doesn’t just come in the form of having a bath or watching a good movie - it can also be avoiding alcohol, resting when you need to, not pushing yourself when you’re not well not feeling guilty for taking medication that you need and saying no to things you don’t want to do.

Living with both anxiety and digestive health issues can be a vicious cycle - and it can often seem like they’re fighting each other over who can make you feel worse. But seeking help for your anxiety could put you on track to a better quality of life.

However, it’s very important that if you think something sinister is going on with your digestive health, you see your GP. Some more worrying symptoms can include excessive weight loss, iron deficiency and rectal bleeding. And the same goes for your mental health. It’s just as important as physical health, and should be taken just as seriously. If you’re not happy with the advice you’ve been given, seek a second opinion. It can be daunting, but please don’t stop fighting to be heard.

If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123. Don’t suffer in silence.

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