A woman has her hand on her stomach as she stands over a swirl in a circle that has flames on one side and wavy lines on the other

Is It Anxiety or IBS?

Last updated: November 2022

How can I confuse anxiety and IBS symptoms when they are 2 completely different things? Well, they are not, really. At least not for me. Unless I consciously know I’m anxious about something, it’s hard to tell whether I’m experiencing an upcoming flare or anxiety.

Anxiety manifests in my digestive system

Whenever I get anxious, I immediately feel like I’ll need a bathroom soon. My digestive tract gets very uncomfortable. In addition, I can no longer participate in conversations or stay concentrated on a task. All I want to do is retire into my space and focus on calming down.

Incidentally, that’s exactly what happens when I start getting IBS symptoms as well. The only difference is that IBS will usually lead to a flare. However, the digestive symptoms I get from anxiety can go away without me going to the bathroom.

Anxiety causes my IBS flares

I’ve mentioned time and time again that many of my IBS flares are caused by anxiety. It’s probably the most powerful trigger for me – unless I eat some trigger foods, but why would I do that? Whether it’s a stressful situation, an important appointment or simply having to leave the house at a certain time: I’m almost bound to experience at least a mild flare.

Stressful times make me more prone to food sensitivities, too. I might be able to eat just fine when I’m calm but can hardly digest white rice when I’m not.

IBS flares cause my anxiety

On the other hand, getting a flare will almost always make me feel panicky. I start worrying about a million different things from the onset of digestive symptoms. What’s causing these symptoms? How bad will it get? When will this flare end? What will I end up missing out on, and whom am I going to have to disappoint? The unpredictability of IBS-D really gets the best of me in these moments. It leads me into a vicious cycle where IBS and anxiety fuel each other.

Is it IBS or anxiety?

I can’t count how many times I’ve started feeling uneasy and have been absolutely unable to tell whether anxiety or IBS was the cause. There have been terrible flares that suddenly stopped after a certain event that I, apparently, was super nervous about without even realizing. There were situations where I honestly believed that I was just anxious and then discovered that it was a full-blown flare-up.

Anxiety and IBS play together

The worst thing about anxiety and IBS is that they’re so intertwined. Both together are doing such a great job at making my life miserable. My IBS would certainly be much milder if I didn't have anxiety. And if I didn’t have IBS, I wouldn’t get so anxious all the time.

I’ve often wondered in the past whether my anxiety was caused by IBS in the first place, but I don’t believe that anymore. My IBS-D first appeared during a very stressful period of my life, and I don’t think this would have happened if I wasn’t such an anxious person to begin with. But that’s a story for another time.

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