Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a condition characterized by fluctuating digestive symptoms. People with IBS generally alternately between being constipated and having diarrhea, often accompanied by bloating, abdominal cramping, back pain and psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
It's hard to tell exactly how psychological factors and IBS are related, but there is believed to be a correlation. The cause of IBS is unknown; it is generally believed that stress does not cause IBS but can be caused by it and, in turn, can cause symptoms to worsen. As quoted by WebMD.com, Edward Blanchard, PhD, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, estimates that over 60% of people with IBS have anxiety, and about 20% have depression.
The Mind-Bowel Connection
The brain communicates with all your body parts through nerve impulses and neurotransmitters. Pain in your digestive tract sends distress signs to your brain; your emotions may be affected by those signals (since physical and emotional stimuli neurotransmitters and are processed in the same areas of the brain). And, inversely, emotional or psychological stress can send signals to the digestive tract, causing it to malfunction.
Another connection between the two is that physical or emotional stress causes the body to divert blood away from certain organisms within the digestive tract and into muscles. This is thought to occur to prepare us for intense physical feats, such as running fast for long distances to escape danger. Our stress response does not know the difference between coping with anxiety and needing to run away from a tiger, so it errs on the side of caution. Without appropriate blood flow, the gut can not function properly.
Treating the Mind and the Bowels
Common treatments for IBS include anti-anxiety medications, stool softeners, anti-diarrheals and dietary changes. When possible, natural treatments should be pursued before more invasive and risky drug therapies. The FODMAPS diet shows great promise for people with different types of IBS; it's an elimination diet that can help you determine if one or more of the five carbohydrates are causing your symptoms. In one study, found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21615553 , 76% of patients were satisfied with symptom response from the FODMAPS diet compared to 54% of the group receiving usual dietary advice.
Given the likely connection between IBS and stress, it's important for treatment to take psychological factors into account. This may take the form of cognitive behavioral therapy, which equips patients with the tools to assess their beliefs about their conditions and root out negative, counterproductive and / or inaccurate beliefs. Learning relaxation techniques can help patients get their stress levels under control and in turn help decrease digestive symptoms. The study at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23205588 found that IBS patients who took a class on the mind-body connection and learned relaxation techniques had significant improvement in pain sensation, quality of life scores and gastrointestinal symptoms. Results were most significant among those with low to moderate quality of life scores at the beginning of intervention.
For most people with IBS, stress management will likely be a beneficial component of treatment. Talk with your doctor about cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation training. You can take up yoga, meditation and breathwork on your own as well.