Thursday, July 12, 2012

Interstitial Cystitis and Stress: Can Stress Affect Your Bladder?

stress and interstitial cystitis

When I speak to interstitial cystitis support groups, I often tell a story that took place shortly after I was diagnosed for my painful bladder. (If you have heard this story before, please bare with me.)

We had just moved into a new house and took a weekend to wallpaper the kitchen. As many of you can relate, putting up wallpaper can definitely test a relationship! In fact, things were going along just fine until my husband lost his temper briefly about something. I literally doubled over with bladder pain, and he snapped again, "But you were fine just a second ago!"

Yes, I was fine just a second ago, but this scenario was the biggest example yet of how quickly stress can affect our bodies, particularly if you have a condition like interstitial cystitis.

What Is Stress?

Despite all of the psychological talk these days about stress, many people are still not sure what it means and how stress can affect a condition like interstitial cystitis. For example, stress itself is neither negative nor positive. Instead, it is our reaction to stress that turns stress into “dis-stress.” Most interstitial cystitis/IC patients learn early that stress can aggravate their bladder symptoms. Please understand; this is not the same as saying that your symptoms are all in your head. Stress, more exactly the body’s response to stress, produces chemical and physical changes that cause our bodies to react in ways that are intended to protect us, but they can also cause damage to our bodies, including our bladder.

The first thing to keep in mind is that stress can be either “external” or “internal.” Examples of external or physical stress include loud noises, extreme heat or cold, malnutrition, injuries, illnesses, toxins, travel, heavy labor, exercise, harsh weather, smoking, and drug or alcohol use. Internal stress can include emotions like anger, resentment, envy, revenge, tension, anxiety, excitement, guilt, fear, rejection, failure, success, depression, love, joy, expectations, boredom, and even frustration. If you are surprised about the positive emotions being listed there, consider the stress people experience when planning weddings or building their dream house!


Fight or Flight

To understand how these stresses create problems in our body and particularly our bladders, it is important to understand the physiological reaction to stress. 

Imagine that a fire spontaneously breaks out in a store where you are shopping. Some of the people around will call 911; some will work to fight the fire; and some will flee, or run from the scene. The body’s physical responses to this stressful situation (the “fight or flight” response) include:
  • Increased release of stress hormones—frequently triggering IC symptoms
  • Surges of sugar released into the bloodstream—providing quick energy for muscle and brain functions
  • Accelerated heart rate, increased respiration, and increased blood pressure—improving the flow of oxygen and energy to the muscles and brain
  • Increased cholesterol and blood lipid levels—providing a sustained form of energy
  • Increased blood clotting ability—preparing the body to heal potential wounds from “fighting”
  • Increased sweating—keeping the body cool during “battle”
  • Dilation of pupils—maximizing vision
  • Slowed digestion and reduced immune function—allowing the body to focus energy on the “stressful” event
Although all of these physical reactions are valuable when a fire breaks out, many times the stressful events we experience do not require the same level of physical activity that fighting a fire demands. For example, when you are subjected to pressure at work, it is unlikely that you will physically have a fight with your boss. Or, if you are in a traffic jam, you probably are not going to get out of your car and start running. Yet, in each case, your body goes through all of those physiological and chemical changes of stress.

This unmanaged stress negatively affects body systems. Many of these changes can affect your bladder if you have interstitial cystitis or even overactive bladder! Nutrition resources are depleted rapidly. The risk for heart disease and stroke increases. Headaches and muscle aches are more common in people under stress. Both men and women can experience fertility problems, and the body is more susceptible to illness (cancer, infection, colds, and flu) because of a weakened immune system. 

Knowing this, now you can probably see how so many health problems are stress related. People under stress are more susceptible to ulcers and irritable bowel disease. Bingeing behavior can increase after a stressful episode, making weight management difficult. On top of that, stress hormones encourage fat to be stored. Finally, as most IC patients know, unmanaged stress can cause an increase in urinary symptoms. 


Managing Stress to Manage Your Bladder Symptoms

“I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone,
best both for the body and the mind.”
Albert Einstein

  • Taking action if possible: Procrastinating on a project or sweeping problems under the rug only increases stress in the long run.
  • Committing to a healthy diet: A healthy diet not only keeps the body from going into stress related to malnutrition, but it also reestablishes nutritional balance when nutrients are depleted, and fortifies the immune system.
  • Getting up to move: Exercising gives the body something physical to do when it is in a state of stress and reduces the effects of stress by using up the chemicals released in the “fight or flight” phenomenon.
  • Avoiding the temptation to “relax” by using alcohol or drugs when under stress: These substances only increase stress on a body.
  • Practicing deep breathing, yoga, massage, meditation, or prayer: hugging someone; playing with a pet.
  • Putting your problems into words: Talking to someone or writing the thoughts down can help provide perspective.
  • Practicing forgiveness: Forgiving those who have hurt you and forgiving yourself for not being perfect can help you come to a place of acceptance.
  • Enjoying something “new”: Taking up a craft, or enrolling in a class can help you feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Letting go when the situation cannot be changed: Putting problems in the past is much healthier than obsessing about problems that can never be solved.
PS: I just wanted to assure you that the wallpaper turned out beautifully! In fact, that was about 12 years ago, and we have redone the kitchen again with nary a cross word! :-)


Author, Speaker, Patient Advocate

Helping Yourself Is the First Step to Getting Well

For step by step guidance for creating your own personal interstitial cystitis meal plan, see: Confident Choices®: Customizing the Interstitial Cystitis Diet.

For some basic, family-style, IC bladder-friendly recipes, see: Confident Choices®: A Cookbook for Interstitial Cystitis and Overactive Bladder

 **Please SHARE using the links below!**


  1. I love the holistic approach you're taking for solutions!

    Here is what's weird about my stress reactions and IC. I can experience all sorts of kinds of stress without an increase in bladder symptoms -- but if I'm running late somewhere, I get IC symptoms!

  2. That is actually funny, Kelly. I wonder if you are controlling the effects of the stress in other times, but when you are late, your brain is totally focused on getting to the appointment on time? ;-)

  3. I don't know! But it happens consistently. I hate being late so it might be triggering a strong stress response, but other events that are objectively MORE stressful don't cause flares.