How School Helped Me Understand the Vicious Cycle of IBS and Anxiety
Last updated: March 2023
In high school, I did not have the luxury of knowing why I was always incredibly uncomfortable. I didn’t know that the cramping, bloating, gas, and nausea had a reason that it wasn’t all in my head. I didn’t know I could find support or change my dietary habits. Instead, I sat in class, uncomfortable, confused, and scared–scared of missing class, scared of failing, scared of letting anyone realize how uncomfortable I was. Most of all, I was scared that if something happened -if I could not control my IBS symptoms in class–that I would be at the center of every joke. I literally could not control how much this terrified me.
I’d always been a self-conscious person, and my teenage years were no exception. Little did I know I was also dealing with the budding mental conditions of anxiety and borderline personality disorder. Had I known these important details about my life and mental capacity, I might have had a different school experience. I might have reached higher levels of academia or had different friends… instead, I struggled endlessly.
IBS and mental health
For those who may not yet know this, IBS has a very close relationship with mental health. Specifically, anxiety and the symptoms of IBS are intimately intertwined. They constantly intermingle and exacerbate each other. They linger within and evolve into a mutant disorder wherein IBS causes anxiety, and anxiety triggers IBS. It is this relationship of physical and mental health that had an immensely negative impact upon my high school experience. Unfortunately, I can only imagine that countless other youth and young adults struggle with this same mutant creature during one of the most stressful and emotional times of his or her life: school.
I have always loved learning. I was excited for high school and wanted to learn, grow, and develop into an intelligent, confident woman. I wanted to create bonds with students and teachers, enjoy classes I found difficult, and figure out what I wanted to do in life. Though some of these wishes were fulfilled, many were hindered by my inability to understand and control the symptoms of my IBS and anxiety.
The vicious cycle of anxiety and IBS
Math was never my strong suit but in the short time it took me to go from grade nine to ten, math classes became tough and seemingly impossible. I went from enjoying challenging mathematical equations to fearing math class every single week. This was not simply because trigonometry and algebra were a nightmare, as they were for most students, but because my anxiety and IBS kept feeding off each other.
Some days, I was nervous for class, which triggered my IBS, while other days, I felt ill or uncomfortable and therefore was nervous to sit in a stressful class. The circle was drawn, and my vicious cycle had begun. Eventually, I would have to leave class in order to calm my anxieties, and though some teachers gave me special allowances to leave when necessary, most simply assumed I was slacking off. Obviously, for a student who cared what her teachers thought, this caused even more anxiety -and IBS symptoms. The vicious cycle.
Every single day I worried what my classmates and teachers thought about me. Every single day I felt anxious. Every single day I found myself in the washroom for endless stretches of time, sitting in the stall, heart racing, stomach cramping. Every. Single. Day.
These occurrences were not limited to math class. It was the common denominator in many of my IBS/anxiety attacks. Perhaps not surprisingly, this unequivocally affected my ability to succeed in school, make friends, and enjoy my classes. I almost failed my grade ten math class, my average fell, and my attendance was sparse at best. School was no longer enjoyable, no longer filled of wonderment. Instead, I struggled to wake up and go to class every morning. What I didn’t know was that on top of anxiety and IBS, I was also struggling with the budding side effects of fibromyalgia. I felt exhausted every day. My IBS and fibromyalgia made me too tired to control my mental health, and my deteriorating mental health constantly had a negative affect upon my physical well being. Alas, the vicious cycle was alive and well.
It got better
I want to say that it got better, and, in some ways, it did. However, I continued to struggle with these issues throughout my high school career and first year of university. I continued to question my sanity, my strength, and my ability to get through life. I felt defeated and weak. Though my struggle with IBS and mental health brought me to the edge numerous times, ultimately, I survived. I graduated with honors and discovered a love for academia. I realized how much I enjoyed history, art, and writing.
How did I do this? I have no idea. But, I do know that education and communication were key. The more I recognized and researched my own mental and physical health, the more I understood what was happening. The more I understood my symptoms, the more I could communicate with others. The more I communicated, the better my relationships were. The better my relationships were, the more I succeeded in school. The more I succeeded, the better I felt about myself. And, the better I felt about myself, the more I succeeded.
I’m not saying that it was easy. It was hard -excruciatingly hard. At times, I felt like I would never get control of my mental and physical health, and, unfortunately, I still haven’t. What I have been able to do, however, is to understand where they come from and educate myself about the connection between anxiety and IBS. With this knowledge, I’ve realized that life is tough, but not impossible. I’ve been able to see each day as it is: a challenge.
Which of the following symptoms of IBS do you experience most frequently?