The Importance of Managing Stress for People who Suffer from IBS


This resource was made possible due to an unrestricted educational grant from Nestle Health Science, makers of IBgard.

Stress can negatively affect your body in many ways. This is even more true if you suffer from GI disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).  According to a study conducted in 2017, both anxiety and depression not only increase the chances of developing IBS but also cause a worsening if symptoms; 34% of individuals in this study suffered from anxiety and 84% from depression. 1

There is no known specific cause, IBS is a cycle of increasing psychological and physical symptoms that make day to day life extremely painful, embarrassing, and difficult. Some experts suggest people who suffer from IBS have a colon that is more sensitive and reactive to certain foods and stress. This makes sense as the colon is in part controlled by the nervous system, which responds to stress.  Evidence also suggests that the immune system, also responding to stress, plays a role.

There are ways you can reduce stress in your life and decrease the chances of your IBS symptoms flaring up.  But first, if you haven’t already, push for a firm diagnosis.  Diagnosing IBS is difficult and can take some time for many individuals. A firm diagnosis from a doctor will help you to properly treat the disorder and help put your mind at ease and prevent you from becoming overly stressed about the unknown. 

Ways to reduce IBS related stress:

Reducing stress factors in your life will not cure IBS, but it will certainly help you manage symptoms, and you will find yourself feeling better more often. 

Be open about your condition

Many people with IBS tend to suffer in silence due to the embarrassing nature of their symptoms. The stress of worrying that people are judging you when you’re constantly running to the bathroom can worsen your symptoms. Tell friends, family and colleagues about your diagnosis, and educate them on the types of things you struggle with.

You’ll find that most people are understanding. It’s not your fault that you’re going through this, and they’ll likely support you and applaud you for being so brave and honest. This will reduce the stress of worrying that colleagues think you’re avoiding work or meetings when you need to take time off and keep you from worrying that your friends and family think less of you when you’re unable to attend planned events. 

managing stress for IBS - be open about your condition

Push for a firm diagnosis

Diagnosing IBS is difficult and can take some time for many patients. Your doctor will perform a physical examination and take a complete medical history that includes a careful review of your symptoms. If you’re experiencing extreme bloating, gas, abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea or constipation, see a doctor. Letting these symptoms go undiagnosed can lead to internal stresses. You’ll be left wondering what’s wrong with you, is it serious? Could your health be at risk? A firm diagnosis from a doctor won’t just help you to properly treat the disorder, but it will help put your mind at ease and prevent you from becoming overly stressed about the unknown. 

Managing stress for IBS - push for a firm diagnosis


Exercise is proven to improve your overall health. It also helps a great deal with stress management and aids in proper digestion.  By stimulating normal contractions of your intestines, exercise helps relieve depression and stress, and can help you feel better about yourself.

We all know exercising is good for everyone, but if you have IBS, you have even more of a reason to stay active. 

managing stress for IBS exercise

Some tips for making exercise a more routine part of your day:

  • Carve out a half an hour at the same time every day to do an exercise of your choice. Even going for a walk or doing something light and relaxing like yoga will help.
  • Try not to exercise directly before or after eating.
  • Experiment with a couple different types of exercise to see what you like most. Maybe you hate lifting weights but get a rush when you go for a run? Maybe you’re a kick boxer and just never knew it? Or maybe you’re the undiscovered star of the Zumba class at your gym. Whatever it is, you’ll never know until you try!

Be open to different types of treatment

Your doctor will prescribe the necessary medications for you, however having a discussion with your doctor about effective over-the-counter products for IBS may help identify additional options to help manage your symptoms, and help you feel more in control and proactive about your diagnosis. 

Products such as peppermint oil and probiotics may be helpful in easing digestive symptoms associated with IBS. Stool softeners, laxatives, and supplements are available for constipation. Fibre gets things moving in your digestive tract when you’re constipated, and it also bulks up stool, which helps slow down diarrhea.

Take time for yourself

Take time for yourself and get a massage, spend some time in a hot tub, curl up with a good book in the bubble bath. Taking time to unwind and take your mind off everyday stresses may feel selfish, or a waste of time, but people with IBS need to consciously relax on a regular basis. It’s not a waste of time if you’re doing it for your health. 

managing stress for IBS - use your benefits

Practice Mind-Body Connection activities

Things like yoga, Tai chi, meditation, and breathing exercises trigger what is called a ‘relaxation response’.  It’s a way of consciously focusing on slowing down and relaxing.  Research into Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has shown that CBT is effective in improving bowel symptoms, psychological distress, and quality of life4.  A recent review and analysis of existing studies (meta-analysis) found that the ‘number needed to treat’ for CBT in IBS is three, meaning that if three people are treated with CBT, one will clinically improve 4. This statistic is better than what is seen in several of the most effective medications. 

managing stress for IBS practice mind-body connection activities

 ‘You’re going to feel very sleepy’ … Hypnosis

Clinical studies using hypnosis to treat IBS has shown its effectiveness for improvements in overall well-being, quality of life, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating 5.  Hypnotherapy appears to  provide symptomatic, psychological, and physiological benefits.  However, hypnosis is not a cure-all, as up to 25% of patients fail to respond 6.  Even when people do improve, conventional approaches to treatment should not always be ignored. It is still important that lifestyle factors such as diet are also considered.

Finally, check your health benefit plan

If you have benefits, use them!  Take the time to learn your benefits package and find out what resources you have available to you. For example, many company packages offer money towards things like massages or therapy.  Speaking to a therapist can be especially useful.  As we have indicated, things like cognitive behavioural therapy can teach you ways to consciously manage your stress and fend off anxiety proactively. 

Unfortunately, we can’t avoid stress entirely. It’s a natural part of being human and can be a very helpful response in emergency situations. However, excessive stress is not healthy for anyone, and is especially harmful for people with IBS. Try a couple of the above suggestions and see what one works for you! Be diligent about stress relief and don’t give up!


  1. Jones MP, Tack J, Van Oudenhove L, et al. Mood and Anxiety Disorders Precede Development of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders in Patients but Not in the Population. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017;15(7):1014-20 e4.
  2. Adapted from IFFGD Publication #276: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for IBS and Other FGIDs by Alyse Bedell, MS, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and Laurie Keefer, PhD, Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York, NY. Adapted by Abigale Miller
  3. Qin, H. Y., Cheng, C. W., Tang, X. D., & Bian, Z. X. (2014). Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World journal of gastroenterology20(39), 14126–14131.
  4. Kinsinger S. W. (2017). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for patients with irritable bowel syndrome: current insights. Psychology research and behavior management10, 231–237.
  5. Gonsalkorale, W. M., Miller, V., Afzal, A., & Whorwell, P. J. (2003). Long term benefits of hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome. Gut52(11), 1623–1629.