Mental Health

What are some common myths about the link between emotions and Inflammatory Bowel Disease?

There are a number of misunderstandings about the relationships between emotions, mental health, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis.1 For example, some people who do not know very much about the diseases may mistakenly believe that emotions such as tension, anxiety, nerves, or feeling nervous or upset can actually cause the disease. However, many studies have been carried out to study this issue and there is currently no evidence that this is true.

One of the reasons that people sometimes have these misconceptions about CD and ulcerative colitis is that decades ago, it was erroneously believed by many people that people with certain personality types were more likely to develop these diseases. Although many years of scientific research have proven this theory to be completely false, some people have continued to believe it despite this evidence.

What does current research suggest about the link between emotions and CD?

Feeling nervous, upset, or anxious cannot cause CD: the cause of the disease is biological, not emotional.1,2 However, experiencing tension or anxiety can have an impact on how some patients experience and cope with the disease and its symptoms. For example, some people may feel emotional distress when they develop a chronic disease such as CD, because having a chronic disease affects so many aspects of a person’s day-to-day physical, emotional, and social functioning.

In some people, the emotional response to having CD might include guilt, anxiety, or depression. But again, it is important to remember that these kinds of emotional reactions are responses to the disease, not the cause of the disease.

What steps can people with CD take to help cope with their emotional responses to having the disease?

People with CD may experience emotional responses to CD that can affect their quality of life and have a negative impact on their day-to-day functioning.1 There are many different approaches for dealing with these emotional responses, but because everyone’s response is unique, there is not a single approach that will work for everyone. Some patients may find that they can find a way to cope on their own, while others may find that it is effective to get help from one or more additional sources of advice and support, such as:

What are some suggested ways to help people living with CD deal with depression?

It very common for people living with chronic disease such as CD to experience some feelings related to depression from time to time.1,3 However, people who experiencing severe symptoms of depression, multiple symptoms, or symptoms that do not go away, should let their health care provider know. Some of the symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling persistently sad, anxious, or in an “empty” mood
  • Feeling hopeless, guilty, worthless, or helpless
  • Losing interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that you usually enjoy
  • Loss of energy or fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Experiencing insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss or weight gain
  • Feeling restless or irritable

If you experience five or more of the above symptoms for longer than 2 weeks, your health care provider may recommend that you visit a mental health professional. Ideally, this professional will have experience in treating people with inflammatory bowel disease. Some patients may be prescribed medication to help manage mental health symptoms.

It is very important to treat depression, whether it is through medication, counselling, or other techniques. While treating depression can greatly improve a person’s quality of life and emotional well-being, it does not treat CD or the symptoms it causes. Only medical therapies for CD can treat the disease and its symptoms.

What are some resources for emotional support in living with CD?

There are many resources available where people living with CD, and their caregivers, can find valuable emotional support to help feel like they are not alone.

  • The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America website offers a range of different support services, including an online community and information about local support groups.
  • Local IBD events can provide an opportunity for patients to connect with each other in person. Simply knowing someone else with the disease can be hugely helpful for a person’s emotional health.
  • Using social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, can provide a great place for support and connecting with other patients. Closed or secret social media groups can provide a private outlet for people to express their feelings and frustrations in a safe space, any time of the day or night.
  • The team at Oak Park Behavioral Medicine focuses on helping people who are suffering from a chronic illness.
Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last Reviewed: January 2016.
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