Living with irritable bowel syndrome or any chronic condition can feel like climbing up an insurmountable mountain. It can be demoralizing, isolating, frustrating and anxiety producing. The problem is without having the skills to effectively manage your stress, the higher the likelihood that it can trigger IBS flare up symptoms.
If you read my last post, I’m all about looking at the opportunity in every situation. I truly believe you have all the strength and power you need to help your IBS symptoms. The obstacles that you face today serve a higher purpose. The key is to be patient as you learn what that is. In this post, I’ll be talking about some stress management skills you can work on to help cultivate more resilience to handle the challenges you’ll face throughout your journey toward figuring out how to cure your IBS permanently.
How Stress can Trigger Irritable Bowel Symptoms
We would like to think we have highly evolved from the days of the caveman, but from a physiological standpoint we have not. Especially when it comes to digestion. Here is the deal. When you are running from a saber tooth tiger your body needs to prioritize and do it quickly. Your body typically is in favor of keeping you alive, so it will do what it needs to do to get you the hell away from that threat as fast as possible. Blood flow is directed away from the digestive system and directed to your limbs so you can make a quick getaway. Digestion is no longer a priority and gut motility is altered.
Studies have shown that people suffering with IBS have higher levels of cortisol, which triggers the release of histamine promoting an inflammatory response and worsening abdominal pain. It can also cause changes in your gut microbiome, which lowers your immune function making you more susceptible to infections that can make irritable bowel symptoms even worse.
Lastly, more recent research is looking at serotonin as being a major piece in the puzzle that is IBS. Serotonin has many functions within the body including sleep, mood, appetite, memory and learning. Additionally, serotonin appears to play an important role in regulating gut motility and transit time. So to sum it all up, when struggling with IBS you need to learn to handle your shit. Let’s take a look at the top 5 ways you can make that happen.
1) Mindfulness to manage pain and anxiety related to IBS.
Kabat-Zinn developed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which is one of the most widely studied therapies for treatment in IBS management. He describes the mindfulness practice as “paying attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally to any thoughts, feelings and/or sensations that may arise,” with the end goal of not labeling anything as good or bad. As we talked about in my previous blog post, a feeling of anxiety and stress arises when a person chronically perceives a situation as causing harm or a threat, so by labeling a thought as just that and not placing any emotional attachments to it, Zahat found that it may help transition a person into a calm, less reactive state.
Practicing mindfulness is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Through MRI imaging, researchers were able to see those individuals suffering from IBS that practice mindfulness had increased blood flow to regions of the brain that were associated with sensation, memory and environmental recognition. Mindfulness may help lower emotional reactivity to pain, reduce the spiraling of negative thoughts, lower perceived pain intensity and lower emotional distress.
One way you can practice mindfulness is observing your thoughts like you were watching a movie. You will feel an emotion tied to that particular thought whether it be fear, anxiety or anger. Accept that emotion, it is not good or bad, it is just feedback. Look at your emotion with curiosity. What is your mind and body trying to tell you? What can you learn from that emotion? How is that emotion serving you? If XYZ was not longer a concern for you, what would you be able to accomplish? What is the easiest possible next step you can take to address that concern?
2) Practicing the Art of Minimalism to prevent IBS flare up symptoms
Let’s talk about an exercise I do a lot with my clients called “trim the fat.” It is where you evaluate your core values and look at how much time during the day is spent on doing the things that line up with those values. It can be helpful to do a time journal where you write down everything you do in 30 minute intervals for a couple days. Then, go back and evaluate what things are serving you and what things are not. You can actually free up a lot of time and space in your day by reducing how much you consume financially and socially.
Another bigger picture question you can ask yourself is “What is my purpose in life?” If you can figure out what your true passion and identity is, it makes it a lot easier to figure out what is a priority for you and what is not. I’m not here to tell you what you should value, it’s your life, it is ultimately your decision. However, I will tell you that you will alleviate a lot of stress by setting boundaries for yourself and spending the majority of your time doing things that are important to you and not other people. A friendly reminder here, you get to choose how you spend your time.
3) How to Create a Space of Solitude when Struggling with IBS
Your home is supposed to be your sanctuary, somewhere you can retreat to for some semblance of peace when you need it. Instead, you come home to piles of laundry, unwashed dishes piling in the sink and papers spread all across the countertops. Sanctuary indeed… Maintaining a decluttered house can feel a lot like maintaining six pack abs. It seems like it takes a lot of commitment and maintenance to keep it going.
Here’s the thing, if you have less stuff, the less work you have to do to keep it organized. Evaluate your house similar to your values, what are things that bring you joy and what are things you can donate or give to a friend?
Another trick that I picked up over the years is something I used to manage my binge eating episodes. Whenever I got the urge to grab the peanut butter jar or frosting container, I would set a timer for 10 minutes. I would then go and clean an area of the house. You would be amazed at how much you can do in that amount of time. While at the time I did not feel in control of my eating choices, cleaning a space felt like one of the few areas of my life I did have control over. It was a small victory that helped me feel empowered, if only for that 10 minutes.
4) Get Outside and Walk to treat depression related to IBS
This one is definitely not a revolutionary idea, however I ask are you doing this consistently? If not, you are missing out on a TON of mental health benefits. Additionally, remember the neurotransmitter serotonin we talked about earlier? You know the one that is in charge of gut motility? Walking in nature naturally boosts levels of serotonin.
Ever tried taking a walk in nature with your phone turned off? We are constantly multitasking, but did you know that this can reduce your productivity by up to 40%? Walking out in nature can improve well-being by giving yourself a chance to unplug. A University of California, Irvine study found that people who had access to email messages throughout the day had higher heart rates than those who were cut off from electronic communication.
Lastly, being in the house all the time exposes you to a number of pollutants. Your body has to work harder to deliver oxygen to the body, rapid breathing can trigger the flight-or-fight response. This is also where serotonin comes in again. Too much serotonin will make you irritable and too little serotonin will make you depressed. Breathing and maintaining adequate oxygen levels help to regulate your serotonin levels, therefore helping to not only improve a sense of well-being, but also digestive function.
5) Focus on your Sphere of Control for Stress Relief when dealing with IBS
There is a lot in life that is outside of our control, which is something that can keep most people up at night if you really think about it. We all want to have some sort of comfort in knowing that everything will work out in the end and everything is ultimately going to be alright. The hard reality is nobody can guarantee that, there will be tragedy, failures and disappointments. For some, there will be more than others.
What gets me through the day is focusing on my Sphere of Control. That is actually one of the reasons why I got into the health and fitness industry. It is comforting to know you have control over your food choices and how you move your body. I control how I spend my time. I control when I go to bed, my mindset, my actions and how I nourish myself every day. I choose to do those things because they give my body what it needs to thrive. I don’t do it out of punishment, it is comforting to me to know that there is actually a lot that I do have control over. My daily habit structure is my insurance policy and I choose to invest in my health and happiness everyday to stack the odds in my favor that I will have a long quality of life.
I encourage you to consider writing down those activities that you do have control over and want to start incorporating into your routine. Choose one thing off of that list, the easiest possible thing that you can do to get started. Commit to a very tiny action item that will take you less than 5 minutes to achieve, such as adding 8oz of extra water a day or 5 minutes of meditation. Link it to something you are already doing, such as adding water after you brush your teeth or meditate as soon as you get into your car to drive somewhere. Then, reinforce that new action with a celebration – positive affirmations work well here such as, “I allow myself to do what is right for me.” Then rinse and repeat until it is a daily practice that you do not have to think about.
Here is the thing about life and personal growth. It is messy and there will always be obstacles, challenges and failures. Stress management techniques for IBS like any other skill requires patience and practice. I truly believe hard times serve some sort of purpose, offering a lesson and opening the door to better opportunities in the future if we choose to listen to its teaching. Remember, your ability to conquer challenges is limitless and your potential to succeed is infinite.
Because we all need a little help sometimes, if you are struggling with symptoms of IBS and can’t seem to gain control of your digestive health despite your best efforts, I’m here for you. You do not have to do this alone, so check out my Food is Strength Program here. Fill out the application form, grab a coffee or tea and let’s chat.