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Overly anxious and driven people prone to irritable bowel syndrome

Published: 
28 February 2007

Overly anxious and driven people are susceptible to irritable bowel syndrome, usually known as IBS, indicates research from the University of Southampton and the University of Auckland, published in the journal Gut.

The researchers, Rona Moss-Morris of the University of Southampton's School of Psychology and Meagan J Spence of the division of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland, studied 620 people who had confirmed gastroenteritis caused by a bacterial infection. None had had IBS before, or indeed any serious bowel disorder.

Each participant completed a detailed questionnaire when their infection was confirmed. This included questions about mood, perceived stress levels, perfectionism and illness beliefs and behaviours.

They were then monitored three and six months later to see whether they had developed the typical symptoms of IBS, which include diarrhoea and/or constipation, abdominal pain and bloating.

In all, 49 people had IBS at both time points. Women were more than twice as likely to have IBS as the men.

"Those with IBS were significantly more likely to have reported high levels of stress and anxiety and psychosomatic symptoms than those who did not develop the condition," comments Rona Moss-Morris.

"They were also significantly more likely to be "driven," carrying on regardless until they were forced to rest - a pattern of behaviour which only worsens and prolongs the condition," she adds.

Although not likely to be depressed, those with IBS were more likely to take a pessimistic view of illness.

IBS affects between 10 and 15 per cent of adults in industrialised countries, but its exact cause is unknown. "Gastroenteritis may trigger the symptoms, but cognitions, behaviour and emotions may help to prolong and maintain them over time," conclude the authors, who suggest that cognitive behavioural therapy may be an effective treatment.

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