Mental Health Month: Dealing With Anxiety & IBD or IBS

Patient Expert

If you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) then most likely you have experienced some anxiety in your life. For people who have never known the urgent and chronic diarrhea that can accompany both IBD and IBS it might seem odd that adults could feel anxious about every day tasks. But it's true. Before IBD and IBS became a daily part of my life I never thought much about simple things like leaving the house to run errands, driving in the car to go to work, spending time with a friend in a shopping center, or even eating out.

It was a couple of months into my first major Ulcerative Colitis (UC) flare-up that anxiety made its grand entrance into my life. I was an adult - 30 years old - and because of the chronic and urgent diarrhea that I experienced with the UC I became scared to leave my house for fear of having an accident out in public. I was having 10, 20, even 30 bowel movements every day. And much of the time I had little time between when the "urge to go" hit and when the "need to go" happened. I quit my office job and became a freelance writer from my home. This helped. But, I still had to conduct my every day life activities like grocery shopping, walking our two dogs, having a social life with my husband and friends, and traveling for business as well as for pleasure.

In the past 12 years since my first UC flare up I have had my ups-and-downs with anxiety as it relates to my IBD and IBS. I've been able to manage much of my anxiety with stress- or anxiety-reduction techniques like yoga, meditation, rhythmic breathing, and learning to take control of my situation as much as possible. An example of this would be traveling on an airplane. As a freelance writer and an avid explorer, airline travel is a part of my life. But in the first couple years of learning to live with IBD and IBS I found I was having anxiety attacks every time I boarded a flight and was instructed to buckle up for take-off. This was odd because I had no fear of flying.

As I explored this anxiety I realized it was brought on by the idea of being locked in an airplane and buckled into my seat with 200+ people and two bathrooms only useable once the pilot said it was okay to do so. Over time I learned how to help ease my anxiety in these situations. I do a number of things before I even board my flight. First, I book an aisle seat a row or two from the lavatory. I also make sure to talk to a flight attendant about my situation so that if there is a line they can help me get to the head of it. I am also sure to take along plenty to do - books, magazines, iPod - to keep my mind occupied and off of my gut. And, I employ my meditation and rhythmic breathing techniques which help to ease my anxiety and focus my mind.

I have also learned not to put too much day-to-day pressure on myself. In this world where everyone is going 24/7 I've had to realize that I just can't live that way and remain healthy as well as anxiety-free. I have learned to pick-and-choose what is important for me to do in a day, a week, a year. Realizing that I am not going to be able to please myself and everyone else in my life all of the time has been a huge stress-reducer for me. And I have also learned that sometimes the best laid plans are simply going to have to go by the wayside on certain occasions.

I am grateful to have a very understanding and patient husband and step-son and wonderful friends. In the past 12 years of living with IBD and IBS and the anxiety that these diseases bring into my life I have had to change or cancel a lot of plans. And in that same amount of time I've never lost a friendship or had anyone fire me or tell me I am an awful person because of having to make a change or cancellation. Talking about IBD and IBS and their related poop problems is not easy. In fact, it's downright embarrassing. But I've found that if I can approach the topic with a sense of humor first and openness second people are very understanding of hearing about these two diseases that are a part of my everyday life and the awkward and anxiety-producing situations they can cause for me. In the end people are usually very understanding and helpful. I've yet to have anyone kick me out of a bathroom stall for jumping the line, or refusing to be my friend because I've had to change or cancel plans with them.

Anxiety is a tough thing to live with. But with May being Mental Health Awareness Month it helps those of us who live with or have lived with anxiety to realize that we are not alone. For more specific information on anxiety and other mental health problems visit Health Central's anxiety website here:

You can read about my whole journey of learning to live with IBD, IBS, and anxiety in the book: Living with IBD & IBS: A Personal Journey of Success -