IBD & Anxiety: A Teen's Perspective

By Carolinas Chapter Junior Board President, Zoe Wojnowich


Hi all! Zoe Wojnowich, President of the Junior Board of the Carolinas chapter of the Crohns and Colitis Foundation, speaking! (oof what a mouthful) I’m writing today about the relationship between anxiety and having IBD. Being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease half-way through fourth grade, I have over eight years of experience with most of the ups and downs of IBD, and guess what? Anxiety is definitely in the mix. 

So what does anxiety look like? MedicineNet defines anxiety as “A feeling of apprehension and fear, characterized by physical symptoms such as palpitations, sweating, and feelings of stress.” And while I agree that anxiety certainly does lead to “physical symptoms,” I think a lot of us in the IBD community might experience a little more than sweating or a racing heart when we feel anxious. 

Just a brief warning before you keep reading- we all share having diseases with poop problems, so I’m going to talk about poop, and if that makes you uncomfortable… I don’t know what to tell ya man!

So, back to the other symptoms we might feel when we’re anxious. To speak bluntly, I know that my anxiety, or just any nerves I may feel, has become ~directly~ related to the need to poop! If I’m playing in a tennis tournament, you can guarantee my nerves will have me in the bathroom at least four times before each match. And after a big test, you can guess pretty easily where I’ll be. But guess what? The whole point of me writing this article is to let you know that if you ever feel any funny, stomach-related, poop-related symptoms before a big test, a big sports event, or just any big -or small- moment, it’s normal!! Sh*t happens! (pun completely intended). 

I’m writing another article about talking to your friends about having IBD, but I’ll give a little preview of that here with a bit of advice. Sometimes, if I’m feeling anxious or nervous about something, and I find myself on the toilet, I find it best to just take in the moment and laugh it off. With some of my close friends, I may even find myself saying “man that test had me nervous, I need to poop!” And that’s ok! Just because having Crohn’s or colitis may not be as common or easy to talk about as having diabetes or ADHD, it doesn’t mean it isn’t completely fine to make some bathroom jokes once in a while!

But, my tip would be, if you find yourself having rough stomach aches, or sitting on the toilet a little more than usual, take a second to think about if there is anything going on in your life that might be stressing you out. Did you have a fight with a friend or sibling recently? Do you have a big tournament or meet this weekend? Is there a big test coming up at school? Because, although sometimes our stomach aches and bathroom struggles are for very different reasons, sometimes it is purely because subconsciously you’ve got butterflies in your stomach! And I’ve found that realizing that, and being able to notice exactly when it’s happening, really helps me to feel much better. (and maybe need to poop a little less too ;) )

For some of you, your anxiety may literally be stemming directly from having IBD. I know that when I was first diagnosed, at 10 years old, I was very freaked out. I was on a ~lot~ of medication, had no clue how to tell my friends I had what I called in my mind a “poop disorder,” and was pretty confused on what it even meant to have Crohn’s disease, or how that would change my life. Little things, like becoming a part of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, and meeting a new, kind, and caring community, helped relieve bits and pieces of my stress and show me a silver lining of my diagnosis. And whether you are one week off of being diagnosed, or 20 years in, I really encourage you to never stop looking for the silver linings that can come with having IBD. I know first hand how much IBD can really stink at times, but it is especially important during those times to try and find one little moment to brighten your day, and relieve a bit of stress.

In the months leading up to my diagnosis, the inflammation in my stomach spread to my ankles, and caused pain so severe that by the night before my colonoscopy and endoscopy, I physically could not stand on my own. I was on crutches at school for a long time, and had to quit tennis almost immediately. Not knowing what was wrong was extremely stressful, and having to miss out on so many things was disappointing to say the least, but it was little things, like getting to sit out of running laps at recess (which everyone hated) and letting my friends play with my crutches that always brightened my day. Having IBD, things can get really messed up, but just remember to breathe, talk to the people that love you, and look for little things to cheer you up. 

And I strongly, strongly encourage all of you: don’t be afraid to talk it out with your parents or even your doctors if you’re feeling extra ~funky~. Sometimes I find the absolute best way to relieve my nerves is to share how I’m feeling with my mom or dad. And if you don’t feel comfortable with that, try journaling about how you feel. My dad taught me a cool trick: he told me that whenever I’m feeling anxious or upset about something, to write it down, crumple it up, and throw it out, because it is nothing more than “head trash.” 

Just know that however you are feeling, at any time, it is perfectly NORMAL, and everyone around you, everyone from the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, everyone here on the Junior Board believes in you, and has your back!

If you have any questions about having anxiety and IBD, and what that means, or just any questions about having IBD in general, feel free to reach out! The junior board’s motto is all about ~teens helping teens~ and I am completely here for all of you! (and even if you’re not a teen, don’t be afraid to send a text or email - I promise I won’t bite!)

Well, that’s all folks! I hope that was helpful :)