The causes of IBS are not well-understood. But connections between your brain and your digestive system can play a role in your IBS symptoms.

With irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your symptoms can affect your mood, and your mood can affect your symptoms.

In your body, messages travel between your digestive system and your brain. This multi-way communication system is known as the gut-brain axis.

Through the gut-brain axis, stressful or emotional situations can trigger changes in your gut. And it goes both ways — your gut can send signals to your brain that could affect your mental health.

For now, no definitive cure exists for IBS. It’s believed to have many causes that are outside of your control. However, by reducing stress and caring for your mental health, you may be able to lessen your IBS symptoms.

Together, the brain and the nerves that control your body are called the central nervous system. This system operates on internal controls that seemingly run on autopilot.

The central nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” side. Stress and anxiety activate this system. They set off a chain reaction of hormone release that increases how fast your heart beats, pumps more blood to your muscles, and slows or even stops digestive processes in your stomach.

The parasympathetic system is known as the “rest and digest” system. It controls body functions like urination, defecation, digestion, tear production, and saliva production — in short, many of the functions your body does in the course of daily life.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems usually work in tandem. Stress is part of your body’s response to danger. After the perceived danger passes, the body turns down the stress response to restore balance. However, with long-term stress, your body no longer returns to a balanced state.

If the behind-the-scenes work of your central nervous system gets out of sync, this can cause your digestive system to become underactive or overactive, which can contribute to digestive symptoms.

Your gut also sends signals to your brain. Researchers believe that this messaging could affect your mood and your digestion. The gut microbiome appears to play an especially important role here.

According to a 2021 review, intestinal bacteria in your gut communicate with both your brain and your digestive system. When the signals between bacteria, brain, and gut fall out of balance, your emotions, sensations, and digestive functions can all be affected.

Stress can have a range of unpleasant effects on your digestive system, including:

All of these changes can contribute to your IBS symptoms.

People with IBS have significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression than people without the condition, according to a 2017 meta-analysis. Stress and major life traumas are also known to worsen the symptoms associated with IBS.

IBS can also be a source of stress in itself. When IBS symptoms are affecting your daily life, these concerns can increase your stress levels.

Your body’s goal is to maintain homeostasis, or a steady state of being. After a stress response, fluctuating hormones are meant to return to balanced levels.

However, when people experience long-term stress, their bodies can’t achieve homeostasis. The body’s altered state of activation can contribute to conditions such as IBS.

A heightened stress response could change how your gut and brain communicate with each other, according to a 2021 review. With IBS, changes in the gut-brain axis may be linked to increased pain, diarrhea, constipation, and other symptoms.

For example, the body’s stress response involves many hormones, including one called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). The CRF hormone plays a role in many important bodily functions. But when it’s overactive, CRF can have negative effects on the health of your gut.

Stress has been linked to IBS-related changes in your digestive system in numerous studies. These stress-related changes include inflammation, an overactive immune response, and changes to the intestinal barrier.

Plus, stress can also cause imbalances in your gut microbiome known as dysbiosis. These changes may be associated with digestive symptoms. According to a 2014 review, stress-induced dysbiosis may play a key role in a person developing IBS.

Some people know the source of their stress, while others have a hard time recognizing it. One way to start treating your stress and its connection to IBS is to keep a journal.

In your journal, you can write about the events of your day and the state of your IBS symptoms. No detail is too small. You may have to keep the journal for several weeks or longer, to see patterns that happen over time.

Depending on the situation, you may be able to reduce your exposure to certain stressors in your life. For stressors you can’t avoid, there are strategies you can use to help manage the impact they have on your body and your digestion.

Here are some ideas for coping with stress to reduce IBS symptoms:

  • Try relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises or meditation.
  • Make an effort to get more physical activity each day. Even a 20-minute daily walk is better than no activity at all.
  • Aim for better-quality sleep. Avoiding caffeine after mid-afternoon, stopping phone and screen use before bed, and keeping your bedroom cool and dark can all promote improved sleep.
  • Take time for activities you enjoy, such as hobbies and spending time with friends.
  • Participate in an IBS support group. Ask your doctor about local groups in your area or online options.

Treating IBS with a mental health professional

Therapy is a popular treatment for IBS. Working with a licensed counselor or therapist can help you reduce stress and manage your IBS symptoms.

In a 2017 meta-analysis, psychotherapy was associated with significant improvements in mental health and daily functioning for people with IBS.

Several types of therapy are used to treat IBS symptoms and related stress, such as:

Plus, some licensed mental health professionals specialize in treating people with IBS. They may offer therapies specifically designed to address digestive conditions.

Depending on your budget and insurance coverage, you may want to consider free or low cost options for therapy in your area. These can include community mental health clinics, sliding-scale therapists, and training clinics at colleges and universities.

Managing IBS can require a multi-pronged approach. Along with stress reduction, some people may need to change their diet or use prescription medications to manage their symptoms. Your doctor can help you put together a treatment plan that’s right for you.

Learning your stressors, focusing on relaxation techniques, getting active, and improving sleep can all help you reduce stress.

You can also talk with a mental health professional, who can help you work toward your mental health and well-being goals.