Janie Thompson is the Continence Foundation of Australia’s Clinical Services Manager, leading the National Continence Helpline. In this Helpline Q&A, Janie answers three key questions about mental health and bladder, bowel and pelvic health.
What is the link between the gut (bowel) and the brain?
Your gut has its own nervous system called the ‘enteric nervous system’ which controls digestion (the breakdown of food and drink). This nervous system is always in communication with your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) through nerves and chemicals. We often call this the gut-brain connection or relationship.
This means your brain can affect your gut and your gut can affect your brain. If your gut is upset, this can cause anxiety, stress or depression. If you feel anxious, stressed or depressed, this can also affect how your gut moves and contracts. It may speed up or slow down, which could change your bowel motions and even cause pain.
Why does anxiety sometimes feel like physical bladder or bowel symptoms?
Because of the gut-brain connection, anxiety can cause the gut to move faster or go slower. This can cause symptoms like ‘butterflies’ in your tummy, needing to go to the toilet suddenly or having diarrhoea.
The bladder sits close to your bowel. If your bowel is upset, this can also have an impact on your bladder.
The brain and spinal cord control the bladder. Anxiety can have a direct effect on the bladder and pelvic floor, for example struggling to use the toilet or pass urine even though you have the urge to go. This often happens when you are in a toilet stall and there is someone in the toilet next to you.
Having bladder problems can also cause anxiety, stress and depression. If you have ever had an accident or wet yourself, you might find that you worry about this happening again. You may be more focused on or think about your bladder more.
How can someone tell if their bladder or bowel symptoms are linked to mental health issues? Should they see a health professional?
If your bladder and bowel symptoms are affecting your life and bothering you, you should see a health professional. It can sometimes be hard to tell if a bladder or bowel symptom is linked to a mental health issue.
It is important to look after your mental health as well as your bladder and bowel health. If you notice your bladder and bowel symptoms are worse when feeling anxious, stressed or depressed, or the other way around, then it is important to have this followed up. There are now more clinical psychologists working with people to help with continence, especially bowel problems, with great success.
Learn more about how a psychologist can help with incontinence.
This story was first published in Bridge Magazine. Subscribe and receive Bridge straight to your inbox.