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Coping with IBS: Can Mindfulness Help?

Thursday, May 29, 2014 3:55 PM

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the large intestine that can cause symptoms ranging from cramping and bloating to constipation and diarrhea. And while IBS does not cause the permanent damage of more severe intestinal diseases like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, it can and often does negatively interfere with one’s day-to-day life.  

There are many ways to control the symptoms of IBS. Treatment often focuses on learning to avoid trigger foods and making healthy lifestyle changes, from the times that you eat to how much and how fast. That’s not all you can do though. Learning to control stress can also make a big impact for those suffering from IBS. 

Alison Reynard, PhD, Psychology at NorthShore, discusses how stress, depression and anxiety can aggravate the symptoms of IBS and how changing the way you think might be able to help:

My gastroenterologist referred me to a psychologist. Does this mean my symptoms are all in my head?
Absolutely not. There are many myths about IBS and this is one of the most common. While IBS is not a psychological disorder, there are factors like stress and unhelpful habits, like eating rushed/unplanned meals, eating rapidly and lack of exercise, which can exacerbate your IBS symptoms. IBS can also impact your mood and other aspects of your life. 

Is stress causing my IBS symptoms?
IBS is not caused by stress but stress can aggravate its symptoms. Keep in mind that many people do develop abdominal discomfort during times of stress; however, people with IBS tend to be more reactive to stress than others since they already have a hypersensitive gut. The research has also shown that IBS symptoms can get worse during episodes of stress. 

Is it true that my doctor won’t be able to identify the cause of my symptoms?
Research has established that there is a medical cause for your symptoms. IBS is a real disorder related to heightened gut motility (i.e., muscle contractions), sensations, or both. Triggers for symptoms can be widespread and may include factors like food, hormones and stress. 

Doesn’t severe pain mean this must be a medical cause?
We have learned that there are many factors that are responsible for our experience of pain. Pain can be worsened with anxiety, arousal and increased attention. If we become focused on our pain, it tends to make our pain worse. There are many behavioral techniques that can help manage pain including distraction and relaxation techniques. 

Can IBS cause depression and anxiety?
IBS may cause depression and anxiety because it can be difficult to manage a chronic and unpredictable disorder. A lot of people with IBS may begin to avoid social situations because they have anxiety about their symptoms “acting up” in public. This isolation can cause depression and may prevent symptoms of anxiety from improving. 

Can seeing a health psychologist help with my IBS? 
Taking care of our health involves paying attention to not only our physical health but also to our emotional well-being, including how our habits influence our health and well-being. We know that there are many factors that impact IBS (e.g., food, stress, hormones, activity, sleep, gut bacteria). Therefore, there is not one specific thing, including medication, which will eliminate symptoms. A health psychologist can help you identify how some of these factors are impacting you and how you can better manage them to improve your symptoms.

How can my thinking affect my IBS?
Sometimes we can think in ways that make it difficult for us to cope with IBS symptoms. One common thinking pattern we can get ourselves into is called emotional reasoning. This occurs when we assume that the way feel must be true. For example, if you tell yourself that you’d love to go to that new restaurant that just opened up down the street but that you could never go because your symptoms might act up, this is a problem-thinking pattern that might not be helping you.

Have you practice mindfulness to relieve gastrointestinal issues?