Stress And IBS
Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Controlling Stress


Stress And IBS


Can Stress Cause IBS?
How Does Stress Trigger IBS?
What If I Am Not Stressed?
Tracking Stress
Stress Management Techniques
Biofeedback Training

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Dangers of Stress

Can Stress Cause IBS?

Although stress cannot cause someone to develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it can certainly aggravate the colon in those with the condition triggering a flare-up. In fact studies show that many IBS patients attribute stress as their main trigger of IBS symptoms. Reduce the stress, and by definition reduce the incidence of flare-ups. One definition of stress is any stimulus that requires us to change. For example this can be the requirement to give a public speech (stimulus) and the resulting feeling of butterflies in the stomach or sweating palms (change). As life constantly requires us to respond and adapt to situations, how we respond will determine our level of stress. Not all stress however is bad. So-called positive stress can stimulate creativity and help a person perform at their peak. Some people for example perform better under the pressure of deadlines and then can relax when the task is performed. Stress only becomes negative when you cannot relax after a challenge. This means your body stays in a state of alert, long after the 'threat' is over which causes health problems long-term. This is known as chronic stress. In fact the American Digestive Disease Society considers chronic stress a disease. It can cause headaches, tiredness, chest discomfort and IBS.

Other useful articles: Read about IBS causes and IBS diagnosis.

How Does Stress Trigger IBS?

When we are stressed the body releases adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine and other chemicals which prepare us for danger and action. However those chemicals also suppress the immune system and interfere with digestion and tissue repair. Chronic ongoing stress leads to adrenal fatigue which leads to a drop in secretory IgA antibodies, these are the antibodies that protect the mucous membranes that line the intestines. This leads to leaky gut syndrome which leaves the body more vulnerable to developing food intolerances and sensitivities which can contribute to IBS. This is why following a specific IBS diet plan and introducing IBS recipes is important.

What If I Am Not Stressed?

Some IBS patients believe stress is not a contributory factor to their condition. They may believe this because they cannot identify any source of stress in their life. However stress is not always easily identifiable, it does not have to have an obvious cause such as divorce or death. Everyday insidious stress can be the result of (or feeling) that you have too many tasks and too little time in which to achieve them. Many working mothers will understand this.

Tracking Stress

The first step to managing stress is to identify what are the personal triggers in your life. Be aware, what stresses one woman, may not distress another. For example some people thrive on deadlines, while others shut down under the stress. The best way to track your stress is to keep a stress diary (combine it with your IBS food diary) and monitor your emotions and physical reactions. At the end of each day note the action which caused the stress and rate it from 1 to 5 (5 being highly stressful). Also note how you feel about the stress, is it positive stress (as discussed above), negative or neutral? In order to identify that you are stressed, you will need to monitor your body. Symptoms to monitor are:

Are you feeling -

• Moody?
• Irritable and short tempered?
• Agitated and not able to relax?
• Overwhelmed?
• Lonely or isolated?
• Depressed and generally down?

Do you find yourself -

• Not able to concentrate?
• Showing poor judgment?
• Only seeing the negative in a situation?
• Constantly worrying?
• Anxious and changing your mind regularly?
• Using alcohol or cigarettes to relax?
• Suddenly sleeping more (or less) than you used to?

Are you experiencing -

• Stress headaches?
• Nausea and dizziness?
Heart palpitations or chest pain? Read about chest pain in women.
Constipation or diarrhea?
• Low libido? (Why have I lost my sex drive?).
• Frequent colds?

Keep your stress diary for 2 to 3 weeks and then review it with your doctor. They may be able to help recommend stress management techniques or refer you to a councilor who can help.

Stress Management Techniques

Identifying The Causes

The most common external causes of stress in women are:

• Being too busy.
• Relationship problems.
• Children and family.
• Money worries.
• Situations or workload at work.

The most common internal causes are:

• Perfectionism - trying to be the best mom, wife or employee.
• Talking negatively to yourself constantly.
• Having unrealistic expectations of situations or people.
• Not being assertive enough.

Stress Management Program

Avoid Stressful Situations
Learn To Stay No: Know your limits and do not accept responsibilities if you don't have time for them.
Reduce Your To-Do List: Drop tasks that are not really important, you may find time for them in the future. Or you may not.

Alter Situations
If you cannot avoid a situation which stresses you - try to alter it so that you do not have to repeat it in the future. If it involves another person, be assertive, tell them how you feel (in a kind way) and avoid bottling up resentment.

If you cannot avoid a stressful situation, adapt and reframe it. Ask yourself, bigger picture, will you really care a month or a year from now?

Make Time For Fun
Call a good friend, take a bath, read a good book. Even if you aim for 1 or 2 hours a week 'me' time it can reap great personal benefits.

Exercise at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes, preferably aerobic such as swimming or a brisk walk. This is a great stress-buster.

Balanced Diet
Try to eat healthy, a nourished body is better able to cope with problems.

Ensure you get enough sleep as this will help keep you energized and able to cope with events.

Biofeedback Training

IBS Natural Treatment: Research by the National Institutes of health reports that biofeedback training can reduce the symptoms of IBS by 75 to 80 percent. It is an effective tool for stress management as it helps a person gain control of their body by using their mind. During a session the patient lies on a couch and the therapist attaches electrodes to several areas of the skin. The electrodes are attached to a computer which monitors body functions such as muscle tension, heart rate, skin moisture (sweating) and foot and hand temperature. If electrodes are attached to the scalp this will monitor brain wave activity (known as neurotherapy). Stress management techniques are tried out, such as deep breathing, and the results are instantly tracked on the computer monitor. For example you can see how your breathing techniques bring oxygen to the bloodstream. First you may be asked to breathe in for one second and then out for 2 seconds. Then you might be told to breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 4 seconds. Any heightened sense of relaxation by the body will be immediately tracked and viewable as feedback. With training people can learn breathing techniques that can help them to alter their heart rate, and to reduce the incidence of high blood pressure, headaches and gastrointestinal problems. Check books on alternative medicine for resources on biofeedback training.


Hypnosis can be used to help you relax and control your response to stress. A 2002 study by the University of Caroline reported good success in treating IBS patients with hypnosis. You can contact the American Board of Hypnotherapy for a registered and qualified therapist:

  Related Articles on IBS

For more related issues, see the following:

IBS Treatment: Medications, diet and stress management.
Abdominal problems: heartburn to PMS and belly button pain.
Development of the female body: from adolescence to old age.

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