Many of my clients who struggle with gastrointestinal (GI) issues such as IBS, SIBO and IBD are likely familiar with that initial gut twinge, which is instantly followed by a wave of panic:

  • “Sh*t, here we go again!’
  • “Am I going to have another episode now?”
  • “Should I try to go to the bathroom?”
  • “Will I even make it to the bathroom?”
  • “What was it that I ate?”
  • “Is this going to pass or get worse?”
  • “This will be so embarrassing!”
  • “Maybe I should just stay home…”

The GI Stress Cycle

The above situation describes the GI stress cycle. When individuals with conditions like IBS, SIBO and IBD experience a GI symptom, it often triggers thoughts of anxiety or panic. These thoughts activate your brain’s alarm system, leading to the engagement of the sympathetic nervous system.

This response causes your muscles to tighten and your breathing to become rapid and shallow. These physiological changes can, in turn, exacerbate GI discomfort.

The increased GI distress then negatively affects your thoughts about the stressful situation, trapping you in a vicious cycle of GI stress. Caught in this loop, you may feel powerless over your digestive system.

This is the reason why, on my intake forms for new clients, many people identify their digestive symptoms as the primary source of stress in their lives!

Visceral Anxiety

Visceral anxiety is a specific type of anxiety that many individuals with gastrointestinal issues experience. It is characterized by an exaggerated reaction to GI sensations that triggers unhelpful thoughts or behaviors.

While the person may only experience a mild symptom (such as a gurgle, cramp, or gas) their reaction feels significantly more intense and disproportionate to severity of the actual symptom. Essentially, a GI symptom that should rank as a 2 on a 10 scale feels more like an 8 or 9.

The hallmarks of visceral anxiety are:

  • Worry
  • Fear
  • Avoidance
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Hypervigilance

Individuals often experience increased sensitivity to gastrointestinal sensations. This hypersensitivity can lead to a state of hypervigilance, where you focus excessively on your GI sensations to the extent that it significantly restricts your capacity to engage in other activities.

My clients who struggle with visceral anxiety often worry, fear, or avoid situations that could exacerbate their symptoms, such as trying a new restaurant, attending a social gathering, traveling, commuting, or going to a place that feels confined like a movie theater or concert.

Avoiding What’s Unpleasant

Given that you might have a history of experiencing stress alongside GI symptoms, your body has likely formed a connection between the two. Once we’ve established that a sensation is unpleasant, we tend to be on high alert to recognize and evade it.

For someone without a GI condition, or who isn’t overly attentive to GI symptoms, minor signs like a rumbling stomach or slight distention might go unnoticed. However, for someone who is hypervigilant, these seemingly minor symptoms can trigger significant stress.

Studies show that individuals who typically don’t experience anxiety in other areas of their life can still be prone to visceral anxiety.

The Relaxation Response

Interrupting the GI stress cycle is pivotal and can be achieved by initiating a relaxation response at the onset of symptoms. Employing relaxation techniques can reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and activate our parasympathetic state. 

Additionally, you can learn to confront your thoughts, emotions, and fears gradually and safely so that you can stop avoiding anxiety-inducing situations.

By recognizing and addressing visceral anxiety, along with managing your responses to the GI stress cycle, those who are living with chronic GI disorders can learn to improve their enjoyment and quality of life.

If you’d like support with your GI condition, you can learn more about our nutrition services and schedule an appointment with Debbie.

About Debbie Steinbock, HHC

After years of being told that she had an "incurable" chronic health condition, Debbie turned to her diet to help her understand her disease, restore her body, and regain control of her health. Her personal journey has given her the knowledge and compassion necessary to help her clients take an active role in their own healing. Since starting her practice in 2000, Debbie has successfully helped hundreds of people across the country to improve their diet, enhance their current state of health, and eliminate a variety of health conditions.

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