Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), stress and anxiety

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common, long-term condition of the digestive system. It can cause bouts of stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and/or constipation.

The symptoms vary between individuals and affect some people more severely than others. They tend to come and go in periods lasting a few days to a few months at a time.

Many people with IBS report that they are affected by stress and anxiety, which can be a trigger for some of the symptoms of IBS, while others say that stress and anxiety has caused their symptoms. Both situations can be serious enough to impact their daily life, resulting in them being late for or absent from work or school, in some cases requiring them to move their business into their home.

The reality is that stress doesn't actually cause IBS, but its symptoms can often start during times of stress. This is because the emotional impact of your IBS can trigger chemical changes that affect the normal working of the digestive system.

If you feel that stress may be affecting your IBS symptoms, speak to your doctor about possible treatments to help with this.

Stress can cause colon spasms in people with IBS as stress can make the colon over responsive. Likewise having IBS can cause more stress resulting in a viscious circle of events.

Managing your stress

If you find that stress triggers your symptoms, you might find it helpful to find ways of reducing your stress levels.

There is proof that stress management can help or ease the symptoms of IBS and there are a number of tools and techniques that you can try.

You can start by making sure you get enough sleep and take regular exercise. You may also want to try practising relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga.

Experts in IBS have also found that around two thirds of sufferers see an improvement following changes to their diet, especially when done in conjunction with prescribed medication (see the talkhealth article IBS and diet for some suggestions).

Alternatively, you can use time management tools to help you feel more relaxed, focused and in control – see the Moodzone page on the NHS Choices website for some easy time-management tips.

IBS therapies

There are various types of behavioural therapy available to help relieve symptoms, including hypnotherapy, relaxation therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a talking treatment that identifies and challenges negative thinking and behaviour.

Getting in touch with fellow sufferers

Getting in touch with others who understand the impact of IBS on everyday life, can often provide more meaningful support than a person’s closest friends and family.

One option is to talk to other IBS suffers in our talkIBS forum or specifically about stress in our talkmentalhealth forum

Your GP surgery or local library may also know of a self-help group near you.

Sources used in writing this article are available on request

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. Our evidence-based articles are certified by the Information Standard and our sources are available on request. The content is not, though, written by medical professionals and should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands, or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 2 May 2018

Next review: 2 May 2021