How Does Stress Affect IBS?

Have you noticed that stress can affect your IBS?

You may find that stress causes bloating, stomach pain and diarrhoea. But why is this and what can you do about it?

The body’s response to stress is part of a natural survival mechanism known as the fight or flight response. This response is designed to take you away from danger.

But,  if you have IBS the affect of stress will worsen your symptoms.

In this article, I am going to use science to help explain why the gut reacts to stress and what you can do about it.

stress affect IBS

How Does Stress Affect Your Gut?

Although we often say that we are ‘stressed,’ stress actually means the response the body has to a ‘stressor.’

So if you were in danger and needed to fight or run away, this mechanism would be activated. This is mechanism is known as the fight or flight response.

how does stress affect IBS

Your body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated as part of this process to help your body adjust for survival (2 ).

This leads to an increase in heart rate and breathing. Your body will also prioritise functions which would allow it to run away or protect itself.

Fantastic right? Your body has inbuilt survival! Well, not really no.

The problem is that the ‘stressor’ is likely to be something like an argument, work deadline or financial related. The ability to then fight or run away from a dangerous animal will not be required.

As your body starts to prioritise ‘survival mode’ it also neglects the gut.

This fight or flight response can lead to stomach pain, bloating, spasm and diarrhoea.

Even in those who do not have IBS, it is normal for the gut to have a reaction to stress. This is the workings of the gut-brain axis (2).

How Does Stress Affect IBS?

It may not surprise you that the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in IBS is very high. Research shows between 80% of people with IBS will have some form of disorder (4 ).

Even if you did not have IBS, you will still experience the fight or flight response to some extent. So why does stress affect your gut more that others?

This issue is thought to come from recurrent or chronic stress.

The theory is that when you experience stress over and over again that it leads to a loading affect on your gut (5 ). This is known as the allostatic load.

It is thought that this loading is connected to a dysregulation in your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This results in your gut having increased sensitivity and a much lower barrier for when you have a stress response.

Symptoms caused by stress

  • Delayed gastric emptying (3 )
  • Increased colonic motility and secretion (3 )
  • Increased pain and discomfort sensations – increased visceral sensitivity (2 )
  • Changes to gut-bacteria levels (2 ).

How To Manage Stress For IBS

How you personally manage your stress will depend entirely on your situation.

You may be able to change your stress levels with simple every- day lifestyle modifications. I personally find the following very helpful;

  • Time management skills: I plan the week ahead, bulk cook meals and block my time to allow for better focus on specific tasks.
  • A good sleep regime: lack of sleep can worsen stress.
  • Be realistic: this may sound obvious, but honestly, is your to-do list doable?
  • Prioritise: you may have 10 things that need to be done but try to prioritise them so that the most important tasks are done first.
  • Avoid stress: it may be that certain situations or people cause you stress. I personally find turning all my social media, email and WhatsApp notifications off on my phone helps.
  • Taking weekly time out: this will look different depending on your lifestyle but for me it looks like reading a book, going for a walk or having a massage.
  • Meditation: if you have ever worked with me, you will know how much

Professional Stress Help

You may find that you require a little more professional help to manage your stress.

The following therapies are useful;

  • Talking treatments: Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Mindfulness.
  • Ecotherapy: improving your mental wellbeing by spending time with nature.
  • Complementary therapies: yoga, meditation, aromatherapy and massage.

For further information about mental health therapy and advice, please see the MIND website by clicking here .


Stress can affect your IBS severely. It is important to manage stress in order to help prevent a flare up of IBS symptoms.

Depending on your situation, stress management will look different. It may be that you can manage stress with self-help, or you could need more professional help.

Click here to book a complimentary call with myself or one of my team today.

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