Crohn’s disease and anxiety are not mutually exclusive; in fact, it’s proof that the mind and body work together and are affected together as a whole. Growing up, my mother was the picture of perfect physical and mental health. Her family valued holistic wellness and fostered confidence and self-esteem. At age 18, she began experiencing sudden severe abdominal pain and embarrassing digestive problems. It was debilitating at times. She began to worry about leaving the house and knew where every public bathroom was.

Soon after these problems began, each episode was characterized by more than just fear of embarrassment. She experienced intense anxiety, sometimes culminating in panic attacks. She began to feel as if every episode pulled her further from the full and healthy life she once lived.

Dealing with Crohn’s Disease and Anxiety

After consulting with her family doctor, he chalked it up to hyper-peristalsis – a condition that causes food to scurry through the stomach and intestine. It is not a severe condition, and her doctor did not believe she required treatment. He had known her since birth and assumed she was worried about college. She felt dismissed as if it were “all in her head,” but the problem did not go away on its own.

Woman with Crohn’s Disease and Anxiety

A woman displaying signs of anxiety and stress

Routine tasks became difficult challenges. She very clearly recalls events such as being in a store and trying to decide on an item, such as a birthday card. She was anxious, began to sweat, and run to the nearest bathroom. It was time for another doctor, a second opinion. The next doctor decided it was “just nerves” and told her she was fortunate because some people are afraid to leave the house at all. He was completely unsympathetic to how her condition was interfering with her life, even as she began to experience symptoms when she woke up and began to miss work. Again, she felt ignored.

Symptoms and Treatment of Crohn’s Disease and Anxiety

Finally, she went to a gastroenterologist in Pittsburgh, who diagnosed her with Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease. These conditions are characterized by abdominal pain, frequent diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss. They range in severity and occur in episodes or “flare-ups.” The gastroenterologist informed her that she would need to be on medication for the rest of her life, but her condition would not get any worse. She started taking medication (at last, treatment!) and was advised to change her diet – no fresh vegetables, seeds, nuts, spicy foods – avoiding anything that would irritate her intestines.

Abdominal pain due to Crohn's Disease and Anxiety

A woman experiencing abdominal pain

The Connection Between Mind and Body

She felt too young to have a chronic condition and to have her life limited. She did not want to take pills for the rest of her life, but they did help. On occasion, she still had crippling waves of anxiety associated with Crohn’s symptoms. She never knew whether the anxiety came first or if the anxiety worsened the Crohn’s symptoms.

She was always on edge. These feelings dissipated with age, but she is always mindful of a flare-up of symptoms. Because Crohn’s and Colitis can be genetic, she also fears that she may have passed the conditions on to her children. In my mother’s case, everyone ignored the connection between the mind and body. She was especially troubled by the sudden onset and intensity of anxiety.

The gut is the second brain and influences mood and emotion. My mother researched the neural networks in the brain and how they impact physiological stress response. Crohn’s disease and anxiety went hand in hand. Everything began to make more sense.

Final Thoughts

Finally, it wasn’t a matter of being “all in her head,” “just nerves,” or “worried about college.” Her anxiety came with flare-up symptoms. Rather than being nervous about having random panic attacks, she knew when to expect them and better understood their origin. When she was in the grips of anxiety, she felt it would never end. Now, even though anxiety may creep up on her, she is aware of the fact that it won’t last forever. And that gives her hope. She hopes it gives you confidence, too.