Stress and IBS: 8 ways to relax and ease the effects

Our expert stress-reduction tips can help you live well with IBS.

It will perhaps come as no surprise to sufferers to find that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and stress appear to be linked. 

Between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 people in the UK are affected by IBS, according to The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). And research shows that people with IBS can be up to three times more likely to also have a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression.

Woman sat on a bed in pain and clutching her stomach.Credit: Shutterstock/fizkes

Whilst the exact cause is unknown, IBS does seem to have a range of triggers. It might come on after a bout of food poisoning, or a course of antibiotics, or even in response to something in your diet.  

But Alison Reid, CEO of The IBS Network, says stress is also part of the jigsaw.  

“A series of stressful events, such as bereavement or divorce or moving house, [alongside diet] can bring on sensitivity of the gut and lead to IBS,” she tells us.

Self-management is an important part of living with IBS and the upset gut symptoms it brings, such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. And, just as you can find foods that work for you, Reid notes there are a range of things you can do to lower your stress levels.  

Below we share eight alternative ways to reduce stress that might just make a difference to IBS sufferers.


1. Practice mindfulness

Try these mindful ideas

Mindfulness can be a great tool for relieving stress – and there are plenty of ways to achieve this. As Reid says, being mindful is simply “doing something that you enjoy to keep you in the moment so that you’re not worrying about your IBS”. 

Below we outline three ways to practice daily mindfulness: 

Mindful activities

Activities that help you to unwind and switch off from life stresses can be beneficial when you have IBS. They don’t take a lot of effort either.  

For example, mindful walking where you pay attention to the sights and sounds all around you can be carried out anywhere.  

Despite enjoying his job, Saga Exceptional’s Product Tester Philip Sowels says the demanding nature of work can increase his stress levels. As someone who has had IBS for years, he believes this is connected to his symptoms.

He really values daily walks as a way to manage this. “Going for a walk every morning gives me time for myself and helps to clear my head,” he says.

Meanwhile, Reid suggests gardening, drawing, and knitting are good alternative mindful activities if you would prefer to stay closer to a toilet.

A woman sits at a table drawing with different coloured pencilsCredit: Shutterstock /
Mindful activities such as drawing can help reduce stress

Mindful breathing

Knowing how to steady your breathing to help slow everything down can also be an effective mindfulness practice. 

Two of the best types of breathing exercises for lowering stress and calming the mind are known as “box breathing” and “3-4-5 breathing”. 

Here’s how to master box breathing: 

  • Breathe in for four seconds. 
  • Hold for four seconds. 
  • Breathe out for four seconds. 
  • Hold for four seconds. 
  • Repeat this cycle four to six times. 

And here’s how to master 3-4-5 breathing: 

  • Breathe in for three seconds. 
  • Hold for four seconds. 
  • Breathe out for five seconds. 
  • Repeat this cycle four to six times. 

Saga Exceptional’s Fitness and Wellbeing Staff Writer Gemma Harris has IBS, and finds box breathing particularly beneficial.  

“Doing even just a few cycles helps to lower my stress levels and keep my mind calm and clear, which helps to keep my tummy calm too,” she says. 


Look at the sky to reduce stress – the art of skychology

Spending some time gazing at the sky is another possible way to practice mindfulness. 

Psychologist Paul Conway has been looking up and watching the clouds – something he calls ‘skychology’ – as a way of reducing stress since he was a child.  

Curious about whether this could help others, he decided to research the benefits of looking up at the sky.  

Older woman looking up at the sky.Credit: Shutterstock/privilege
Gazing at the sky can be a mindful activity

He found striking similarities between looking at the sky and mindfulness and meditation. People told him they felt calmer, less stressed and anxious, and more present in the moment.  

“Intentionally looking at the sky for as little as 60 seconds offers an everyday way to experience mindfulness and awe, and the range of wellbeing benefits these provide,” Conway says. 

2. Exercise regularly

Make sure you move

As we get older, continuing (or even beginning) to exercise can be important in managing gut health and the symptoms of IBS, which can change as we age and our circumstances change.  

“For instance, if you’re not as active as you used to be, then your stool will have a slower transit time through your gut,” Reid says. This can lead to constipation, with those who already have IBS experiencing “IBS with constipation” (IBS-C).  

Physical activity also reduces levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also encourages the production of feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, creating a state of relaxation. 

Current UK guidelines for physical activity for adults aged 65 and over are: 

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week or, for those who are regularly active, 75 minutes of vigorous activity (or a mixture of both). 
  • Strengthening activities on two days. 
  • Reducing extended periods of sitting. 
An older man on a bicycle whilst a younger man runs alongside himCredit: Shuttertock / IndianFaces
Regular movement is key in managing IBS and stress levels

Reid suggests walking through greenery to reap both the mental and physical benefits.  

Meanwhile Julie Penfold, a Wellbeing Staff Writer at Saga Exceptional who has IBS, finds yoga to be a useful tool. “It helps to take my mind off my tummy when it’s not good as I’m focused on getting each move right and, when it’s a balance pose, not falling over!”  

3. De-stress with sound

Unwind with calming sounds

While getting outdoors and walking in nature is known to be good for our physical and mental wellbeing, listening to nature sounds can also promote relaxation.

In turn, this can encourage our nervous system to enter ‘rest and digest’ mode and positively affect our gut health. 

“The sounds of birds singing can evoke feelings of joy and happiness, while the sounds of waterfalls and rain are associated with stress reduction and attention restoration,” explains Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

“Aside from natural sounds, listening to white noise is also effective in reducing anxiety, stress and improving sleep.”  

If you don’t have easy access to nature, apps such as Headspace and Calm feature a variety of relaxing white noise and nature sounds.

4. Explore hypnotherapy

Encourage deep relaxation with hypnosis

Forms of hypnotherapy have been proven to be effective at reducing stress and NICE guidelines recommend the psychological therapy for those whose IBS symptoms persist after 12 months of treatment. 

Certified hypnotherapist Lada Shustova-Carter says: “Hypnotherapy creates a natural state of mental and physical relaxation, which provides relief from stress and anxiety.  

She adds: “Deep relaxation, which is much like meditation, calms and relaxes the body and mind to help the feelings of stress subside. Suggestions are then fed into the subconscious mind, with the aim of helping you solve the underlying causes of stress.” 

As well as bringing psychological benefits, hypnosis is effective in treating IBS according to Shustova-Carter. “It has been shown to reduce abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloating and constipation as well as improve overall quality of life and wellbeing.”  

According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), hypnotherapy may not work for everyone, but research has shown long term improvements for others with some people no longer needing medication. 

Shustova-Carter has created a short hypnotherapy recording especially for Exceptional, to help relax your mind and stomach. Why not have a listen from the comfort of your home?

5. Get enough sleep

Create a sleep hygiene routine

Sleep and stress have a reciprocal relationship: just as a lack of sleep can contribute to stress, stress can also lead to sleep problems. 

So getting enough sleep each night can help to reduce stress. As Reid notes, “sleep is good for your mental health, whether you have IBS or not.” 

But it’s not always easy to get the seven to nine hours per night recommended by the NHS.  

One tip that has particular relevance to IBS sufferers is to avoid eating too close to bedtime, as this can affect digestion and sleep quality. 

Woman waking up in bed and stretching.Credit: Shutterstock/fizkes
Wake up happy by following a healthy sleep hygiene routine

More generally, Reid recommends the following sleep hygiene tips: 

  • Create a night-time routine: “Go to bed at the same time every night. Perhaps have a half-an-hour gap between using your phone or watching television and going to bed. Maybe do light reading instead.” This is because electronic devices emit blue light, which can prevent production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. 
  • Make sure your bedroom is well ventilated. Research shows this can help you to sleep better. 
  • Ensure your bedroom is tidy: “This will affect your state of mind and your stress and anxiety levels. It makes a huge difference to your quality of sleep and how you’re feeling when you go to sleep.” 
  • Avoid naps throughout the day: While some evidence shows napping can provide benefits and even reduce daytime fatigue, napping too late in the day can cause sleep problems during the night. If you do need a nap, it’s best to do it for no longer than 30 minutes, and at least eight hours before you go to bed. 

6. Try aromatherapy

Surround yourself with stress-reducing scents

“Never underestimate the power of scent,” says Claire Logan from Arran Sense of Scotland. “Aromatherapy has been used for centuries to improve both physical and mental wellbeing.” 

She says lavender is a popular scent for those looking to reduce stress. “Lavender essential oil has been found to reduce restlessness, disturbed sleep and even has links to reducing anxiety.” 

She adds: “Another popular scent in aromatherapy is patchouli, which has been known to promote relaxation, ease stress and restore emotional balance.” 

Woman smelling essential oils.Credit: Shutterstock/Hero Images Inc
Experts recommend lavender and patchouli as relaxing scents

7. Consider acupuncture

Calm both your mind and your gut

Acupuncture has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a treatment for stress and anxiety. More recently, research suggests that it could also be used to ease the symptoms of IBS. 

According to one study, acupuncture could be particularly beneficial for people with diarrhoea-predominant IBS (IBS-D), helping to improve symptoms as well as quality of life.  

If you’d like to find out whether acupuncture could be beneficial for you, the British Acupuncture Council’s register of qualified acupuncturists is a great place to start. 

8. Develop resiliance

Learn how to cope with external stressors

Whilst we can try to reduce the amount of stress in our lives, some will be caused by situations we have little control over, such as family arguments or trauma. So how can we best cope with these external stressors?  

Reid says to remember that “the only person we’re in charge of is ourselves. We can’t control other people’s actions, but we have 100% control of how we respond.  

“It’s not straightforward and easy, but you can learn how to do it. It’s important to develop your resilience against those situations.” 

Mental health charity Mind’s tips for building resilience include identifying your stress triggers and preparing for them, building a support network to help you cope when stress occurs, and looking after your wellbeing. 

Managing stress and IBS: final thoughts

As we’ve seen, there are plenty of ways IBS sufferers can try to manage their stress levels to help reduce its impact on their gut health. 

We turn to Reid for some inspiring final words of advice.  

“IBS is not a life sentence,” she says. “You might have to work around things and do things differently to your friends and family, but you can learn to live well with it.” 

Expert bios

Alison Reid has been CEO of The IBS Network since 2015. Working with the Board of Trustees she handles the implementation of the Charity’s future strategy, including all fundraising activity. 

Lada Shustova-Carter is a certified hypnotherapist, counsellor and relationships therapist, based in Reading and online. She has been successfully using hypnosis over the past few years to help clients overcome phobias, bad habits, panic attacks, stress and anxiety. 

Paul Conway is a psychologist, wellbeing researcher and creator of Skychology. He also offers coaching via his Successful Humans programme. 

Claire Logan is a self-care expert at Arran Sense of Scotland. This family-run business creates bath, body and home fragrance products that are designed, formulated and produced on the Isle of Arran, Scotland. 

Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Association for Psychological Science.

Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her


Gemma Harris has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

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