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Panic attacks and IBS - what to do?


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Sorry, the post is a little long - if you don't wanna read the whole story, just read the last paragraph. ūüôā

I'm a 31-year old man who, since I was 23, has been struggling with IBS-C. I'm the type of man who doesn't go to the doctor unless I feel I have no other choice - and yeah, I know that's stupid - but when I finally did go, I went because I was experiencing a recurrent sensation of nausea. Back then, it seemed to come and go without any dietary triggers. I kept vast and detailed food diaries for years but found absolutely no consistency between what I ate/drank and my nausea and/or constipation. On those rare days where I experienced no symptoms at all, I couldn't figure out why either. I kept seeing many different doctors for years and was subjected to many different types of medical analysis, but in the end they concluded that there was nothing severely wrong and so they gave me the diagnosis IBS-C. 

I was quite disappointed because I was at my wit's end. I knew my life couldn't go on like this to the point that I was seriously hoping it was cancer, just to have an end to the suffering. But I found that after they finally diagnosed me, I stopped thinking so much about it and eventually I somehow accepted my fate. And then, with me barely even noticing it for a long time, the symptoms mostly disappeared. Then, when I was 28, I went through a lot of heartbreak and sorrow in the span of 1 1/2 years. The symptoms returned, worse than they'd ever been. The nausea was almost constant; it was, for the better part of 6 months, as if the only place where I wouldn't feel nausea was when I was alone in my house or when I was drunk. Everywhere else, the nausea returned - work, on the street, supermarkets, in the company of friends, around strangers, with family, in bars and even in funerals and weddings. So, I was alone a lot. And when I finally did go out to any social event, I drank a lot of alcohol. 

Finally, one day a few months before turning 30, I decided to stop drinking coffee - something that was extremely difficult seeing as I was somehow managing to hold on to my very demanding job in IT in spite of my condition and developing alcoholism. At this point, I felt that coffee was the only thing keeping me standing on my legs. When I quit coffee, it didn't take more than a few days for the nausea to disappear. I substituted it with the most expensive teas I could buy, and for the first time in 2 years, I felt like a normal person - albeit exhausted and with a massive caffeine withdrawal headache. It was like losing my life and having it returned to me. So full of gratitude was I that I thanked every god and spirit I could name despite not believing that any of them exist and promised them all I would make the most of the time they had granted me. I think this is a perfect image of how severe the situation had really gotten. 

A short time after this, I gave up on gluten as well. I had tried this a few times before, but never for more than a few days at a time. This time, and by sheer luck, I quit for one day, decided that didn't help at all but then randomly didn't have any gluten for the next three days. For the first time since I was 23, I had a normal, human, functional, painless, unproblematic trip to the toilet. 

A year later, I'm still so grateful for having found a way to live with this. I feel sorrow for the lost years and for all the lost moments, but I've won this struggle as much as is possible. I no longer have any substance abuse, I take zero medication, I'm acing my career and I'm just... happy. Happy and free in a way I never thought I could be again because of my IBS-C. The reason I post this entire story and not just a question is because now, these days, where I rarely experience the symptoms without knowing exactly what I've done wrong, I still seem to get into situations that trigger something near a panic attack in me. Public transport (particularly underground metros), movie theatres, long work meetings and restaurants seem to trigger it. The sensation is one of rapid heart beat, sweaty palms, slight dizziness (that intensifies severely upon direct eye contact), dry mouth, nausea and stomach rumbling. I feel as though I'm about to throw up, but I know I won't (because I lived with the nausea for so long) but every inch of my body is telling me to get outside. My inner monologue is DON'T PUKE, DON'T PUKE then EASY, EASY, JUST BREATHE and meanwhile I'm losing my ability to see straight and it gets worse and worse, then slightly better, then even worse. It can last for minutes or hours. Today, for example; I went to the cinema and felt awful. The panic came as soon as I sat down, ready to see the film, feeling totally fine. The second, and I mean the very second, that I stepped out of the exit of the cinema and in to the cold night air I felt absolutely fine. My stomach felt a little groggy from the event but that was all. 

So, I realise these days that anxiety is a major component of my IBS-C. I don't think the nausea started because I was anxious, I think it started because I had IBS and now, I'm chronically but not consciously terrified of any place that confines me. Looking back, I'm extremely confused about how many of my problems were caused by anxiety and how many were caused by a medical condition (my IBS). Can anyone share experiences with this? And how did you recover (if you did)? And what's my future prospects? I want to rid myself of this anxiety and I'm convinced it's only in my head since the panic attacks only happen in very specific situations. 


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Jeffrey Roberts

Dear Michael,

Thank you for sharing your complete history. It was very informative. I can relate to a lot of the things that you went through.

My recommendation for dealing with anxiety and panic attacks is to see a professional Psychologist about this. Anxiety and panic attacks are very common and by using Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) you will likely be able to deal with them in a much better way.

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Cinemas almost always used to do something similar to me too. I'd be fine, then put me in a cinema, and I started feeling sick and REALLY  bizarre and strangely creepy. I remember that from childhood.
Meanwhile I was a healthy child with no issues, and had no IBS or any gut problems. But I was the kind of kid who loved nothing better than playing outside in the woods all hours God sent!

When I look back I think it was the whole thing about being confined in a dark space and unable to get out (usually we were in the middle of a row with people either side.)

I can't recall how I used to handle it, but I must have done as no one knew about it but me. I never threw up. I usually sat through the movie and part of me must have enjoyed the movie. I suppose. But it was a shame when I look back because it was kind of family members to take me there!

It may have been some latent claustrophobia in me, though I don't quite get that, as I used to love small confined spaces such as hiding in cupboards when playing hide and seek etc, as a kid.

I think CBT is a good idea. It may help you with coping skills.

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I can totally relate to your story about praying to an entity. I do it all the time when I’m in the middle of a painful bout of C. Right now I’m in here because I’m no where near cured. But one thing I can highly relate to is the anxiety issues. Years ago I couldn’t stand in a TSA line but the airplane was fine. When I was in college I couldn’t stand a 300+ person class because of all the people. If the room was freezing I was fine but a stuffy room would give me immediate anxiety. I had to retrigger my brain and I was able to do so by myself. But you might need a professional to help you. Your body is going into a flight or fight response most likely. For me my issues improved after cutting out caffeine as well as reminding myself over and over again I will be fine. Mine was also due to a heart defect. I’m a big proponent now of checking your heart rate regularly and if your resting heart rate is always 100 ish don’t take the bull that some drs say that it’s normal because it’s not. Average should be like 70-80 and just walking maybe in the 120s. It could be less if you are athletic.



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On 10/6/2020 at 2:59 PM, Sai said:

For me my issues improved after cutting out caffeine

Yes, it's amazing how caffeine contributes to anxiety feelings. The last year or two I would start feeling anxiety soon after drinking my morning coffee (even just one cup!) It took me ages to figure that out as I was used to having my morning coffee for, like -50 years!!

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Hello all, I'm new to this forum. I'm a 27 year old male and although I still haven't officially been diagnosed with IBS, it's probably something that I very likely have (only the colonoscopy and a potential gastroscopy tests remain to be done, all the other tests have beem fine). First sympthoms started about 6 months ago, but since 3 weeks ago it started getting more serious, more bloating, more irregular bowel movements and change in habits, pain/cramps starting from the belly but expanding all over my body etc. I'm sure you all know them and have experienced them.

The worst part however has been my mental health. Obviously at the beggining I didn't know what's going on with me so I started panicking, even lost 7 kilograms in these 3 weeks (probably due to the stress), and although now after so many tests I know that it's most likely "only" IBS, I still can't seem to settle down. Every cramp (being somewhere in my stomach or sometimes even chests), every need to go to the bathroom and even every time it's time to eat, I feel extreme anxiety and even starting to have feelings of hopelessness, even though, realistically, my sympthoms are not THAT severe, or at least I think they aren't. I started taking meds for easing the anxiety, they seem to help a little but I only started yesterday so I'll see how it goes.

Anyway, thanks to anyone who's reading, and I would appriciate any suggestions on what would be best to do in the future to handle this better, or just anyone sharing their own experiences. 

My name is Damjan btw. 

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Hey Damjan, I understand and 100% empathise. I guess you've heard of the "gut-brain" connection, and that phrase "gut feelings"?

Yes it affects me quite deeply too. There is a logical physical reason why. It doesn't mean anyone is going crazy because they are seriously upset emotionally about what is going on in their belly.
I think it's natural for this to cause at least some level of "gut feeling" anxiety and I can imagine that leading to a full panic attack.

It sets up reactions in the vagus nerve too sometimes, which could perhaps contribute to panic attacks, because there's a sort of adrenaline response.

Sometimes I can't stop that happening, but I at least can bear in mind the perspective of it all, and know that any severe anxiety-type sensations will run their course, and pass in a short time -maybe even just an hour or so. All I can do is wait it out, play some nice music or walk a little bit in the garden, and make sure I breathe steadily. Sometimes a hot tea or something that tastes sharp and a bit spicy, like nibbling on a piece of frozen Ginger, will help. Maybe it's because it focuses me in more positive yet strong physical sensations. Or drink some tea that is calming and anti-spasmodic for the gut, like peppermint.
I also try to focus on some happy memory in my thoughts, and try to remember details from that memory.
Going outside and pulling up weeds, or watering plants also helps even if I feel so bad I think I might pass out! (I never do.)

I find just knowing that it will pass very soon helps so much.

I have not got this 100%. I tried meditating but can't concentrate enough to meditate when I feel really bad. I might say a prayer, or recite a poem that is beautiful. Or even call a friend who understands (because she used to have IBS!)

I am not into anti anxiety drugs or anti depressants because most drugs really don't suit me. But they definitely DO suit a lot of people, and there can be help from them. So talk to your doctor if you think something like that might help you.

Good luck . I definitely understand.

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Thanks for your reply Esjie, I appreciate it . I've started taking some anti-anxiety medicine, they do help slightly, thankfully. The funniest thing about my condition is that it's not even that bad. I've read some experiences of people with IBS/IBD and some have it pretty bad, while all I have is loose stools in the morning (not diarrhea, more just cake like stool), some cramps in my belly now and then, the rapid weight loss (stress related likely) and that's about it. My biggest problem is probably in my head. My father has had daily diarrheas for the past 5-10 years and he's healthy as hell, while I can't get over the fact that my stool changed from hard, sausage-like to soft, cake-like. I'm in a difficult state mentally wise for virtually no reason. 

I might go on antidepressants in the near future and I'll try to post on here how it goes. 

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  • 2 months later...

Hey! My name's Emma- and I also have IBS and generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks.  I have been struggling with this as well.  It seems that if I have a flare up I will be anxious, causing a flare up- and if I'm not experiencing any stomach pain but get anxious, I'll have an ibs flare up.  They seem to feed off of each other.  For me, dealing with my anxiety was the best step to take- I sought counseling and drugs and it helped to manage it a little.  Another thing that really helps me is breathing exercises when I have a flare up or panic attack.  I notice calming down also helps with stomach pain.  In addition I got a food allergy test which helped a lot.  I cut out gluten and dairy for the longest time and it didn't help my flare ups.  Now that I know what my true allergies are (and they're very obscure) my stomach has been so much better.  Hope this helps! 

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On 10/12/2020 at 2:45 PM, damjan193 said:

while all I have is loose stools in the morning (not diarrhea, more just cake like stool), some cramps in my belly now and then, the rapid weight loss (stress related likely) and that's about it. My biggest problem is probably in my head. My father has had daily diarrheas for the past 5-10 years and he's healthy as hell, while I can't get over the fact that my stool changed from hard, sausage-like to soft, cake-like. I'm in a difficult state mentally wise for virtually no reason. 

I do understand that. I have the same .....at times. At other times things are much more normal.

I feel we are reacting with hyper-vigilance to a certain extent, and can't help that. We are noticing the signs of odd changes going on in our bodies. It's not the end of the world for some people to have stool consistency changes, but it is for us. It's raising massive red flags for us, probably because we are sensitive in some way perhaps. Some people have the runs every day, really badly....numerous toilet visits etc. We're pretty lucky -ish, but we know something is wrong somehow.

I also get anxiety when it happens. I know something isn't quite right. The brain-gut connection spikes the anxiety. It's not the other way around. The body itself is "anxious" and sends that message to the emotions and thoughts.

The comfort I get is only from tests I have had which show there is nothing serious or major happening. So while this is not all in my head, I do get comfort from knowing I am definitely not dying from an undiagnosed bowel cancer or something. I am currently experimenting with many things: herbal bitters seem to be helping a bit right now. Some homeopathy has helped, though not brought about a cure yet.

Kind wishes.

Edited by Esjie
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On 1/3/2021 at 6:00 PM, Emmabeauchesne said:

Another thing that really helps me is breathing exercises when I have a flare up or panic attack.  I notice calming down also helps with stomach pain. 

So true. Breathing exercises do help. I am doing diaphragmatic breathing and have been doing simple meditation. It has made me feel a bit better somehow. A little bit fresher and stronger in spite of symptoms being up and down (and now acid reflux too!!) :(

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