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What are the causes of anxiety when you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome and what can you do about them? This is Part One of a three-part series on anxiety. In this article, I’m going to talk about some of the most common causes of IBS anxiety. In Part Two, I’ll explain how you can give yourself natural anxiety relief by calming the "alarm center" of your brain. And in Part Three, I'll give you six tips for dealing with unsuspected stresses on your body that make you anxious and contribute to physical symptoms.

I’ll warn you right now – anxiety has a lot of different aspects, but once you start to understand what’s going on, you CAN get control of it. It worked for me.

With or without IBS, more than 40 million people over 18 in North America have some kind of anxiety disorder. That’s almost one in five people, which means we are a pretty anxious bunch!

Anxiety can bring on stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, headaches, rashes and skin problems, muscle tension, tremors or twitches, insomnia, fatigue and feelings of losing control. Sounds a lot like Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms, doesn’t it?

Believe it or not, these reactions have a lot to do with your brain trying to help you survive. I know that sounds odd but here’s how it works:

In The Instinct to Heal, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber explains that your brain is really two (some say three) brains in one. You have an emotional brain that reacts quickly and instinctively to danger and other types of stimulation - like that cute person walking by. And you have a rational brain that allows you to think analytically, use language, plan for the future, and concentrate on studying for a test, among other functions.

The emotional brain sends out directives to your body, like “RUN!” if a car is speeding right at you. Your heart rate speeds up, your muscles activate, and you instantly take action. At the same time, processes like digestion and rational thinking stop because they’re not immediately needed. There’s no question that leaping for the sidewalk helps to keep you alive.

But your survival brain can make mistakes.

Trauma specialist, Dr. Robert Scaer, says that the survival brain or “limbic system” remembers traumatic experiences that have not been fully processed. It uses these memories to keep you from getting into another similar situation. This happens on the unconscious level and you're not in control of it. The problem is that the information in the memories may be incomplete and inaccurate or no longer apply to your life.

This is where the anxiety comes in. Your fear reaction gets triggered in the part of the brain called the amygdala, even when there is nothing to be afraid of.

Let’s say you were once in a car accident at night. When the accident happened, a certain song was playing on the radio. As the years go by, you don’t learn to drive and never get into a car at night. In fact, whenever you see headlights approaching, you feel nervous.

More than that, you find you are very sensitive to any kind of bright light and sudden loud noises, especially at night. If you hear the same song that was playing – or even a song that sounds like it – you feel anxious and tense and your body goes into escape mode, speeding up your heart rate, shutting down your digestion, activating your muscles, flooding your system with adrenaline, and so forth.

So you could be at a party and suddenly feel anxious and scared because you hear some music that reminds your emotional brain of the car accident. Since you usually don’t realize this is happening, because it’s an unconscious reaction inside your brain, you wonder why you feel so tense. Someone turns off the room lights and puts a spotlight on a disco ball that sends flashes of bright light flying all over the room. Immediately, you panic and you don’t know why. All you know is that you have to get out of there NOW!...

Fight, flight or freeze into anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms

Remember earlier when I said that anxiety can bring on stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, muscle tension, twitches, and feelings of losing control? Dr. Scaer would say that it is actually your autonomic nervous system going into dysregulation that causes those symptoms.

What that means is that your brain is telling your body to get ready for fight or flight, so it needs to speed up the internal “take action” processes and switch off everything that doesn’t help you fight or run away. Your muscles would get ready for action (muscle tension, twitches and tremors), you would become hyper-alert (lots of adrenaline, nervousness and anxiety), and your digestion would shut down (constipation.)

On the other hand, instead of fight or flight, you might go into a “freeze” response where your heart rate slows, you may feel nauseous or you vomit involuntarily, your gut could go into contractions (intestinal pain, stomach cramps) and you could lose control of your bladder or bowel (diarrhea, urgency, alternating diarrhea and constipation.) Some of these digestive symptoms happen because the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are cycling through their functions but in an extreme way.

The short version is that suddenly you could have physical Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms on top of your feelings of anxiety or panic.

A car accident is only one example of the kind of trauma that leaves behind memories that contribute to anxiety (and physical IBS symptoms.)

Any unresolved physical or emotional traumas – or series of traumatic experiences – are potential causes of anxiety.

To further complicate the situation, your earliest experiences of bonding with your caregiver, usually your mother, affect your level of emotional resiliency. It’s a fact of biology that if you don’t get the face-time you need as an infant, you tend to be more anxious.

I’m not mom-bashing here. If any loving person gives you lots of close nurturing when you’re a baby, you’ll be calmer. That person could be mom, dad, a grandparent or someone else but usually mothers spend the most time with infants, for obvious reasons. (And if you are anxious, it’s a good bet that your mother is too, which means she didn’t get the face-time she needed either. And maybe her mother didn’t either. But someone has to end that inheritance.)

So all of this adds up to a complex reaction inside your emotional brain that is one of the biggest causes of anxiety. Is there any way to get it under control? Absolutely! I go into details in the next two parts of this post.

But before we get into that, here are a few more reasons you have anxiety along with IBS.

Anything that stresses you can make you anxious. While most people think of stress as an emotional state, daily physical stresses to your body are a big cause of anxiety. They make you anxious because your system has to struggle to try to get you back into balance. If you’re not in balance, or “homeostasis”, you die. Here's a list of...

Physical stresses that cause anxiety:

1. Chronic diarrhea is dehydrating, and your body reacts to dehydration as a threat to your survival because humans need water. Not having enough water is a stress that will cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue. It’s not a psychological problem; it’s a signal from your brain and body that you’re in danger.

2. Chronic constipation is another stress that can make you anxious because of the build-up of toxins in the intestines. When your body is holding onto toxins, it can also react with headaches and nausea.

3. Food allergies or sensitivities put you under stress. If you continue to eat foods you react to, your body will be under constant stress. It will mount an inflammatory response to the foods. Constant inflammation leads to all kinds of mental and physical health problems, including anxiety and depression.

4. In my experience, people with digestive disorders are often sensitive to chemicals and scents in common household and personal care products. Some chemicals are neurotoxins which means they disrupt the way signals are transmitted between your brain and your body. This is another cause of anxiety as well as headaches, skin problems, gas and other digestive reactions, and fatigue.

5. When you are awake at night because of pain or several trips to the bathroom, you’re not getting the sleep you need. Sleep deprivation is a source of stress and anxiety for people with IBS and for millions of others.

6. Lack of exercise is a huge cause of anxiety. You can easily see this with dogs and children. When dogs don’t get any exercise, they become aggressive, fight, whine, chew your favourite shoes or themselves, and generally exhibit all kinds of behaviour problems. Same with kids (without the shoe-chewing.) On the other hand, when dogs are exercised, they are calm, content and relaxed. We are no different.

7. A cause of anxiety that goes with lack of exercise is shallow breathing. When you’re anxious, you tend to hold your breath or breathe very lightly. Then your brain starts to freak out that you’re going into oxygen deprivation. That’ll make you anxious for sure!

In Part Two of this article, I’ll discuss different ways of overcoming anxiety. They are all techniques for natural anxiety relief that worked for me and they can work for you, too.

You may also be interested in our article on a Quick Fix for Anxiety.

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Comments (2)

  1. Karen of No IBS

Thanks, Galvin! The one food that causes the most digestive discomfort is dairy, closely followed by cereal grains (i.e. wheat, rye, oats, barley, spelt, kamut, etc.), but there are plenty of other foods you could react to - everyone's body is a...

Thanks, Galvin! The one food that causes the most digestive discomfort is dairy, closely followed by cereal grains (i.e. wheat, rye, oats, barley, spelt, kamut, etc.), but there are plenty of other foods you could react to - everyone's body is a little different.

Finding "the food" that aggravates IBS is a huge challenge. That's because some people may have food-based IBS, but a lot have trauma-based IBS (could be from physical or emotional trauma.) So, until you address that, you end up with the situation where you can eat a food one day and it's fine but the next day, it causes an IBS reaction. (Kathy and I actually developed the No IBS Program of audios to deal with trauma-based IBS.)

BTW, the acupressure tapping method in the No IBS Program is great for relieving anxiety. Kathy and I go into a lot of detail about how to use it to get the best results for IBS. You can see how to do it in the video in Part Two of this post.

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  1. Galvin Green

Great post makes perfect sense. I just wish you could find out which food aggravates my ibs bqut certainly stress makes it worse.

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