Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Panic Attacks

Two-For-One Strategies For Relieving Both

The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and panic attack symptoms sound like very different things, but in fact, it's very common to have bouts of both simultaneously. That's unfortunate, of course, but there's a bright side: The strategies for dealing with one condition generally also are helpful for dealing with the other. And so once you understand what the two have in common and learn how to cope, you may be able to manage both at the same time.  

Why IBS and Panic Attacks Can Overlap

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Both IBS and panic attacks are thought to be caused at least in part by a dysfunction in the central nervous system's natural stress response, sometimes called the "fight or flight" response. 

During a panic attack, the body reacts as if it's in serious danger. Common symptoms include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Heavy perspiring
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Feeling as if you can't breathe
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Fear of losing control or dying 
  • Feeling as if you're going to throw up

If you have IBS, you might experience some or all of these symptoms as well as abdominal pain, cramping, and diarrhea.

Learning to Relax Is Vital

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If you have both IBS and panic disorder, practicing relaxation exercises will be highly beneficial by helping you to build skills for calming your body and reducing your distress when you are experiencing a panic attack or an IBS attack or both. Even better, if you practice these skills regularly you will lower your baseline level of anxiety, which will reduce your risk of having either type of attack. 

Slow Your Breathing

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Deep breathing exercises develop the skill of using the diaphragm to slow and deepen your breath, sending a message to your body that there is no immediate threat to your well-being. This helps to turn off your stress response and quiet your panic and digestive symptoms. Place your hands on your belly and breathe in slowly and fully. As you inhale, imagine your belly is a balloon that's filling up with air. As you breathe out, focus on the sensation of a balloon deflating. 

Relax Your Muscles

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As part of the stress response, your muscles tense up. Learning to progressively relax each muscle group helps to turn off the stress response and calm your body.

To practice progressive muscle relaxation skills, sit or lie in a quiet place. Relax one group of muscles at a time, starting with those in your face and head and moving all the way down to your feet and toes. To do this, tense up the muscles you're focusing on, squeezing as tight as you can, and then let them go.

Calm Your Mind

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As you use breathing and/or muscle relaxation skills, you may find it helpful to calm your mind. Some ways to do this:

  • Calming self-talk (affirmations): Remind yourself there's nothing to worry about and that your symptoms will pass soon.
  • Visualization: Close your eyes and imagine you're in a peaceful safe place.
  • Guided imagery: Form an image in your mind that represents your distress, then imagine it changing into something that will help you feel calm rather than agitated.

Use Heat for Soothing

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The sensation of heat on the belly can be very soothing. You can use either a heating pad or a hot water bottle. Heat will help to calm the muscles and nerves in your digestive system and also will be psychologically soothing.

Talk To Someone

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy based on learning new ways of thinking and behaving that can help to calm physiological symptoms. Research has found CBT to be effective both for reducing symptoms of IBS and for relieving panic attacks. So whether you have one of these disorders or both, working with a cognitive behavioral therapist can be an effective way to deal with your symptoms. 


Gros DF, Antony MM, McCabe RE, Lydiard, RB "A Preliminary Investigation of the Effects of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Panic Disorder on Gastrointestinal Distress in Patients with Comorbid Panic Disorder and Irritable Bowel Syndrome" Depression and Anxiety 2011;28,1027–1033.