Managing the stress of irritable bowel syndrome

You may find that you were more anxious or stressed than you used to be, before you started experiencing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. This is common in people suffering from functional gastrointestinal and pain conditions like IBS.1 This stress may be general or may be specifically related to GI events and symptoms, like meals, abdominal pain or diarrhea. 1 Symptom-specific anxiety is characterized by increased fear and worry about GI sensations, even mild ones. You may avoid situations that might be associated with symptoms and try to limit your activities to “safe” places. While such behaviors may limit your stress in the near term, they actually increase and prolong your overall anxiety. 1

Treatments for managing anxiety and stress

Research shows that certain types of psychological treatments can have a very beneficial impact on IBS. If you have moderate to severe IBS symptoms and are experiencing psychological distress, this type of treatment may be appropriate for you. Psychological treatments used to treat IBS include psychotherapy (dynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapy), hypnotherapy, and relaxation therapy. These treatments can also be combined depending on your needs.1

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on helping change thought and behavior patterns to reduce stress and improve IBS symptoms1,2,3
  • Gut-directed hypnotherapy may help you relax and reduce discomfort; these treatments are targeted in large part to symptom-specific problems such as symptom fears and coping.1,2,3
  • Relaxation training can calm stress and reduce muscle tension2,3
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy can help address stress triggered by interactions with other people2,3

In addition to alleviating symptoms, these therapies can allow you to discuss and explore personal matters without fear of judgement or blame.2 Talk to your doctor to learn more about these options and if they may be appropriate for you.

Managing stress

In addition to psychological therapies,mindfulness techniques such as meditation may be helpful in managing IBS symptoms. These practices promote relaxation and may help improve general stress and symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence and diarrhea.4 Furthermore, these techniques and movement therapies such as yoga or tai chi can generally be practiced without any concerning side effects.4

Studies support the use of psychological treatment for managing IBS symptoms. 1 The choice of treatment will depend on your situation, requirements, and available resources.1 Psychological treatment may be part of a multi-component treatment program to help you better manage symptoms while addressing psychosocial difficulties such as abuse or loss that may be interfering with your daily life and ability to manage your illness. 1

Remember: You should always discuss your treatment with your doctor or gastroenterologist. As every IBS patient is different, they will be able to advise on treatments appropriate for you. Once you have decided on the best treatment plan for you with your healthcare professional, make sure you adhere to your doctor’s recommendations to improve your experience with IBS.


  1. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Psychological Treatments. accessed on 08.10.2020
  2. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Treatments for IBS.  accessed 05.10.2020
  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  accessed on  05.10.2020.
  4. International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Complementary and Alternative Treatments. accessed on 05.10.2020