Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common condition that causes stomach pain, digestive distress, and other uncomfortable symptoms. In many cases, stress is the main cause of IBS flare-ups, and some people may see an increase in stress-related symptoms as they age. You should understand the connection between stress and irritable bowel syndrome as well as what you can do to manage stress and keep your symptoms under control.
Can Stress Cause IBS?
Stress is one of the most common triggers for irritable bowel syndrome, and researchers have identified several possible explanations for this connection. The digestive system is full of so many neurons that it’s sometimes referred to as the “second brain,” and these neurons interact closely with your actual brain. Your brain sends messages to your stomach and intestines to control your digestion, and your digestive system sends messages back to your brain to indicate pain or discomfort.
When you experience stress or anxiety, your body enters “fight or flight” mode, which involves the activation of your sympathetic nervous system. Because your brain is preparing you for danger, it tries to conserve your energy by slowing down your digestion. If you face chronic or intense stress, you may experience disruptions in your digestion as a result of the frequent activation of your “fight or flight” mode.
In some cases, people with IBS may have an imbalanced or disrupted brain-gut connection. Stress and anxiety may result in an overactivity of your digestive system, leading to uncomfortable stomach churning or diarrhea.
Another explanation for the link between stress and IBS is a hypersensitivity to spasms in the colon. When you’re stressed, your brain may make you aware of every uncomfortable symptom in your body. Stress can also make you more sensitive to pain, so you might experience stronger IBS symptoms if you’re chronically stressed or anxious. However, this discomfort can further increase your anxiety, so many people with IBS feel stuck in a vicious cycle of pain and stress.
Stress, Anxiety, and IBS in Older Adults
IBS usually develops in younger adulthood, but it can last a lifetime. Adults who were affected by stress-induced IBS in their younger years will probably continue to struggle with the condition as they age. Sometimes, stress increases with age, which could make symptoms and flare-ups worse.
IBS can be an especially challenging condition for older adults who are struggling with loss of independence. Needing support from others for personal care tasks can be difficult for anyone to come to terms with, but it may be particularly upsetting for seniors who have issues with bowel function.
Sometimes, individuals develop IBS later in life. This could happen if you start to struggle with anxiety or if you go through a major medical event or stressful life experience. Abdominal pain, gas, constipation, and diarrhea can all be signs of other illnesses, though, so seniors may go undiagnosed or wait a long time to receive an IBS diagnosis.
How to Treat Anxiety Induced IBS in Seniors
Although IBS does not have a cure, symptoms can often be managed with lifestyle changes. As you experience IBS episodes, you might notice patterns in the triggers. Certain foods are known to cause flare-ups, so altering your diet may help to get the symptoms under control. However, the best way to manage stress-induced IBS is to treat your stress and anxiety. This way, you target the root cause of the condition instead of simply addressing the symptoms.
Here Are 4 Tips for Calming Anxiety-induced Irritable Bowel Syndrome
1. Keep a Journal
The triggers for your IBS may be obvious to you, or they may be more subtle. Keeping a journal can help you identify patterns in the situations or environments that seem to trigger your symptoms.
You might be able to avoid the situations that cause stress and IBS flare-ups, but stress is usually somewhat unavoidable. By knowing exactly what triggers your symptoms, though, you can prepare in advance if you expect that you’ll be put in a stressful situation. Mentally and emotionally preparing yourself for stress can make the situation feel more under control.
2. Engage in Soothing Hobbies
Finding enjoyable ways to relax in your free time is essential when trying to live a lower-stress life. Additionally, hobbies are a great way to maintain your cognitive skills, socialize, and find a sense of meaning and fulfillment as you age.
Everyone has different preferences, so you should look for activities that help you feel calm and centered. For some older adults, exercise is a powerful stress reliever. Others seek out artistic hobbies, such as painting or crafting. Try to participate in a hobby that you find relaxing at least daily so that you get regular opportunities to reduce your stress.
3. Use Relaxation Techniques During IBS Episodes
Reducing your overall stress levels can lessen the frequency and severity of your IBS episodes. However, flare-ups can still occur from time to time. If you can relax in the middle of an episode, you may find that the stress and discomfort are greatly reduced.
Many older adults find that deep breathing is an effective way to ease symptoms and stay calm during an IBS flare-up. You could try practicing deep breathing daily so that the skill is easy to access when you’re feeling digestive discomfort. Then, if you start to experience an episode, you can use your deep breathing techniques to keep your mind and body calm.
4. Work With a Counselor
Although you can take steps to manage your stress and anxiety on your own, extra support is sometimes needed to get the symptoms under control. If you or an aging loved one is struggling with chronic stress or anxiety, consider seeking out senior counseling. Therapy is an excellent opportunity to explore the root causes of stress in your life and develop coping skills to prevent stress from taking a toll on your body.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can be particularly helpful for seniors with IBS. This form of counseling explores the relationship between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Our minds can get stuck on certain negative thought patterns, which can lead to extreme stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches you to identify these unhelpful thoughts and dismiss them without allowing them to control your emotions or behavior.
Stress-induced irritable bowel syndrome is a painful and uncomfortable condition, but support is available. Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides cognitive behavioral therapy for IBS. You can contact us today to learn more.