How to Deal with IBS and Panic Attack Symptoms

Due to an overlap between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and panic disorder, some people find themselves dealing with IBS symptoms and panic attacks at the same time. Luckily, strategies that are helpful for managing the symptoms of one disorder are also generally helpful for managing the symptoms of the other disorder. Here you will learn why these symptoms might happen at the same time and you will learn about some practical skills that you can use during such attacks to help minimize your distress and discomfort.

Why an IBS Attack and a Panic Attack Can Happen at the Same Time

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Both IBS and panic disorder are thought to be the result, in part, of a dysfunction within the central nervous system, specifically a dysfunction in the body's natural stress response. You may know of this as the "fight or flight" response. 

In response to a perceived threat, the body goes through many physical changes - changes originally designed to help us as humans to survive a life-threatening experience by maximizing our ability to either "fight" or "flee" from a hungry predator. In modern life, we rarely run into such beasts, but we are exposed to lots of low-level threats. 

The symptoms that you experience during a panic attack are due, in part, to the physical changes of the stress response. The process of digestion is also tied strongly into this stress response. Thus you might experience strong digestive system symptoms when experiencing a panic attack.

Panic Attack and IBS Attack Symptoms

Woman having a panic attack.
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The symptoms of a panic attack can be quite uncomfortable - something you can attest to if you have actually had one! Here are some of the more common symptoms: 

  • Racing heart or heart palpitations
  • Breaking out into a sweat
  • Shaking and trembling sensations
  • A feeling that you are having a difficult time breathing
  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed
  • Fear of losing control or dying 
  • Feeling like you might throw up

If you have IBS, you might experience some or all of the above symptoms while also dealing with strong abdominal pain or cramping and perhaps urgent bouts of diarrhea.

Relaxation Exercises Are Essential

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If you have both IBS and panic disorder you will find it quite beneficial to practice relaxation exercises. This practice will help you to build up skills for calming your body (and thus reducing your distress) when you are experiencing either a panic attack or an IBS attack or both. 

Even better, when you practice these skills on a regular basis (meaning every day) you will lower your baseline level of anxiety, which will reduce your risk of having either type of attack. 

Learn How to Slow Your Breathing

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When you take long, deep, relaxed breaths, you are sending a message to your body that there is not immediate threat to your well-being. This helps to "turn off" your stress response and quiet your panic and digestive symptoms.

Deep breathing exercises help you to develop the skill of using your diaphragm to slow and deepen your breath. Keeping your hand on your belly, you will pay attention to its rise and fall. As you breathe in, feel the belly fill up like a balloon and as you breathe out focus on the sensation of a balloon deflating. You will also want to focus on slowing down both your inhale and your exhale.

Learn to Relax Your Muscles

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As part of the stress response, your muscles tense up in anticipation of the "fight or flight." In addition to slowing and deepening your breath, progressively relaxing each muscle group also helps to turn off the stress response and calm your body.

To practice progressive muscle relaxation skills, you would sit in a quiet place and, one by one, focus on relaxing a different muscle group. You may want to start at the top of your head and work your way down. You may also prefer to tense up each group of muscles first and then letting go and easing that tension.

Calm Your Mind

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As you use breathing and/or muscle relaxation skills, you may also find that it is helpful to calm your mind as a way of reducing the distress of your panic and digestive symptoms. There are a few different things that you can try:

  • Calming self-talk (affirmations): Speak calmly to yourself, reminding yourself that there is nothing to worry about and that your symptoms will pass soon.
  • Visualization: Here you will close your eyes and imagine that you are in a peaceful safe place.
  • Guided imagery: Here you will form an image that represents your distress and imagine it shifting form in a way that will reduce your symptoms.

Use Heat for Soothing

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The use of heat on the abdomen can be very soothing. You can use either a heating pad or a hot water bottle placed on your belly. Heat will help to calm the muscles and nerves in your digestive system, quieting your digestive symptoms. Such heat can also be quite psychologically soothing and thus help to ease your sense of panic. 

Get Treatment

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that has research support for being effective in reducing the symptoms of IBS, as well as having research support for reducing the symptoms of panic disorder. CBT involves learning new ways of thinking and new ways of behaving that result in a calming of the body.

Source:

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.

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