How Stress And Colitis Are Linked

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It has been established that stress is not the direct cause of ulcerative colitis, but research indicates psychological stress can promote the condition by increasing the risk of experiencing flare-ups. No one knows what causes ulcerative colitis, although it is believed that an autoimmune action may be to blame. 

By learning how to manage your stress, you may be able to reduce the risk of experiencing a flare-up of symptoms of colitis.

Therapy can help prevent stress-related illness before it starts

What is ulcerative colitis?

Colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation and sores in your digestive tract. It affects the innermost lining of your large intestine (also known as your colon) and rectum. Most people experience mild to moderate symptoms, which can vary, and usually develop gradually over time. For some patients, however, colitis can be debilitating and life-altering and may lead to life-threatening complications. It is most prevalent in Western cultures and East Asia.

Symptoms of ulcerative colitis may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Mild fever
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Frequent, recurring diarrhea
  • Sudden, persistent feeling of having to go
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Sleeplessness
  • Weight loss
  • Anemia
  • Pain, redness, and swelling of the joints
  • Liver problems

It was once thought that diet and stress were the factors ultimately responsible for causing colitis. Although the exact causes of colitis are still largely unknown, experts believe that diet and psychological stress can aggravate the condition. Colitis is most likely brought on by an autoimmune process, which is an immune system malfunction. This happens when your immune system, designed to fight off viruses and bacteria, instead attacks healthy cells. In other words, during an autoimmune response, your immune system turns on your body and goes after the gastrointestinal tract and, in the case of colitis, causes inflammation and ulceration.

Environment and genetics are also factors in the risk of developing ulcerative colitis. Colitis most often strikes people under 30 or in late middle age and is slightly more prevalent in men than in women. There is no cure for colitis, but treatment and management can alleviate symptoms and may lead to long-term remission in some cases.

The impact of stress 

Millions of people experience all types of stress daily for a variety of reasons, and stress and colitis have been shown to be inextricably linked. Psychological stress can bring on a colitis attack or make symptoms worse. 

On the flip side, people with colitis may be more vulnerable to stress, to begin with, and rates of depression are also higher among patients who have colitis and other inflammatory bowel diseases. Those who have Crohn's disease or colitis have twice the risk of also developing a generalized anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and for women, the risk is even higher, as many as four times the rate of men. 

Like stress, anxiety can cause more flare-ups. Other risk factors that make a colitis patient more likely to also experience stress may include increasing age, other severe diseases, lack of disease education, an ostomy procedure, and socioeconomic status.

The relationship between stress and colitis

The systemic effects of psychological stress on the immune and inflammatory systems are complex, and experts believe that both chronic and acute stress is associated with colitis, in terms of encouraging the inflammation that leads to colitis flare-ups.

The duration and intensity of the colitis reaction most likely relates directly to the duration and intensity of the stressor. For example, adverse life events or difficult situations, such as being a caregiver or going through a marital separation are more likely to trigger more severe colitis symptoms than a bad day at work or an argument with your best friend.

Stress may not directly cause the condition of ulcerative colitis, but it can aggravate its symptoms and increase the risk, frequency, and severity of flare-ups. Further, severe, chronic psychological stress may lead to increased bowel inflammation. Colitis patients who also live with chronic anxiety are at a higher risk for requiring surgeries, reduced medication adherence, lower quality of life, and higher perceived level of stress. In other words, left unchecked, stress may lead to additional and increased stress.

Under stressful conditions, the human body prepares for fight or flight by producing proteins called cytokines, releasing the stress hormone cortisol and producing adrenaline. These biological processes stimulate the immune system to help fend off injury or infection, which then activates inflammation throughout the body, including the colon. If an individual has colitis, this can lead to a flare-up.

The Crohn's & Colitis Foundation talks about the GI (gastrointestinal) stress cycle: Initial GI discomfort (nausea, abdominal pain, or diarrhea) leads to unhelpful thoughts, such as "Uh oh, not again…," which can then cause negative emotions like stress, frustration, anxiety, embarrassment, and anger. These negative emotions may trigger what is known as sympathetic arousal, with biological processes like increased heart rate and perspiration, decreased respiration, tightening of muscles, and eventually, additional GI distress kicking in. Finally, we arrive at the worsening of GI symptoms, which starts the cycle over again. Breaking the GI stress cycle can be as simple as focusing on taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths, and muscle relaxation can begin to slow the sympathetic arousal mechanisms.

One additional hurdle a colitis patient may face is getting a dual diagnosis in the first place. Physicians who usually care for those with ulcerative colitis may not have much formal training in identifying or diagnosing mental health disorders, much like psychologists and therapists wouldn't normally look for or recognize the symptoms of colitis. Experts urge patients to speak up if they believe they have symptoms of both ulcerative colitis and stress. They also encourage doctors and therapists to educate themselves on the comorbidity of colitis and stress and to be on the lookout for one where the other has been diagnosed.

For patients, one of the most vital steps in managing colitis and stress can be securing the right healthcare team, chiefly a gastroenterologist and a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist.

Manage your stress, manage your colitis

Managing symptoms of psychological stress may not cure ulcerative colitis, but it can help alleviate some of its symptoms and reduce the frequency of ulcerative colitis-related incidents. Put simply, if you reduce your stress levels, you can reduce the discomfort caused by colitis.

Avoiding psychological stress entirely can be unrealistic. Therefore, it's unreasonable to think that you can manage your ulcerative colitis by keeping stress out of your life. You can, however, realistically keep your stress levels down by eating well and avoiding foods that cause your ulcerative colitis to flare up. Try incorporating whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fibrous fruits into your diet. It can also be helpful to take any prescribed medications as directed, sleep well, exercise, have a strong support system, and commit to taking time to relax through methods of self-care. Yoga can be especially effective because, in addition to relieving symptoms of stress, yoga has also been shown to relieve symptoms of ulcerative colitis.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can also be beneficial. Using CBT techniques, a psychologist or therapist can help you learn to observe your negative thoughts and then change or reframe them. Instead of "Oh no, here we go again…," you might think, "I'm going to face this flare-up more calmly, so it will be less severe than last time." Studies show that CBT may not eliminate the symptoms of colitis but can improve one’s quality of life

Other tried-and-true strategies which have been recommended for reducing psychological stress include:

  • Light aerobic exercises, like walking, swimming, or tai chi
  • Reading or listening to a book
  • Writing in a journal
  • Guided meditation
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Joining a support group
  • Pursuing hobbies and activities, you enjoy
  • Planning by knowing where bathrooms are in advance and always having supplies and a change of clothes on hand
  • Emotional control through focused strategies, like learning to accept the situation, constructive self-talk, and letting go

It can be essential to recognize the signs of emotional trouble and get help for stress if you need it. Treating your colitis may not entirely alleviate your symptoms of stress (and vice versa), so while getting digestive issues under control can be helpful and important, it might not be enough. You can get support from a healthcare professional to manage your mental health, just as you would for your physical health.

Online counseling with BetterHelp

Managing your mental health can be just as important as taking care of your physical well-being. If you are experiencing mental health concerns like stress, consider reaching out to a qualified counselor online. BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that allows you to receive care from your home. Worrying about all the details of therapy may cause you to take on more stress, but BetterHelp seeks to eliminate those worries. You can easily sign up and be matched with a therapist using an online form and choose to talk through phone calls, video chats, or in-app messaging. You won’t need to stress about driving far distances to appointments or waiting for a spot to open up on a long waiting list. Instead, you can start getting the support you need when you need it. 

Online counseling can be effective for those experiencing stress. One study assessed the efficacy of a web-based program for reducing nurses’ stress levels. Researchers found that “participants experienced significantly greater reductions than the control group on the full Nursing Stress Scale, and six of the seven subscales.” Nurses with greater experience had even more pronounced benefits than those with less.

Takeaway

While stress itself isn’t deadly, it can lead to other problems, like medical issues or unhealthy habits, that can be detrimental to the body. Colitis is just one example of a medical condition that may worsen with untreated stress. Finding ways to manage your stress can be vital to your well-being both physically and mentally. Participating in online counseling may help you find stress relief techniques that work effectively for you and allow you to move forward with a healthier outlook on life.

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