We've all been there; at the point of desperation, surrounded by piles of work both literal and metaphorical, feeling like you cannot cope with the amount of stuff in your life, unable to relax, unable to cope, just generally unable, right? Yup, stress is the pits. For those of you other lucky souls who are also trying to cope with IBS, stress is even worse. Stress ruins your gut. Bloating, stabbing pains and diarrhoea are just a few of the lovely extras that stress brings to the IBS party.
Over the past 18 or so months, I have developed a super keen awareness of the way my body functions. Bowel motions, reactions to food, reactions to stress, I've felt it all and analysed the crap out of it. With these months of analysis (yes, I do consider it to be analysis), and armed with my superpower of digestive awareness, I can confidently say that stress is the number one trigger of IBS.
Shocked? Stunned? Mildly surprised? Whichever you are, this revelation opened my eyes to the true toll that stress plays on our bodies. Now, this is not a new discovery. Scientists have been studying the effects of stress, and the stress hormone cortisol, for years, but I never really thought that stress could be the main trigger of my IBS symptoms. I only began to realise this fact when I noticed that the low FODMAP diet wasn't really helping to alleviate my pain. I could be eating the right foods, at the right times and still be in agony. This led me to thinking that maybe it wasn't the food at all. I was wound up tighter than a jack-in-the-box, in a constant state of anxiety and tension, my body was in 'fight or flight' mode 24/7. Adrenalin was being pumped endlessly into my system.
When your body is in a stress state, it's main focus is to outrun or outfight whatever 'danger' it is that you are facing. From a chemical perspective, a signal from your brain sets off a chain reaction causing adrenaline and cortisol to be pumped into your body allowing you the extra 'oomph' to overcome the perceived threat. Heartbeat increases, muscles tighten and your senses heighten allowing your strength and stamina to increase and your reaction times to be quicker. Efficient digestion stops, as it is pretty low on the priority list if your body thinks you're facing a feral tiger. Which is why it is such a nightmare to have IBS and be stressed at the same time. Your digestive system has had to take a backseat to other 'more crucial' functions as a response to stress. And inefficient digestion = serious pain!
Alright, you say, stress is a pretty large factor in IBS. But how do you deal with it? Great question. Here are a few ways that I have found helpful in calming my mind, and ultimately calming my body.
- BREATHE - Sounds like an obvious one but if you actually notice how you breathe, often when we are busy and stressed out we take short, shallow breaths from our chest, keeping our bodies in an anxious state. By taking slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm (in your stomach region) your body actually gets the message that you are safe, your heartbeat slows, your chest loses it's tightness and your muscles relax. Give it a go, take 5 deep breaths from your diaphragm and see if you notice a difference. Whenever you feel stressed or start to feel frazzled, it helps to stop and take a few deep breaths and allow your body to relax.
- POSITIVE SELF TALK - Yes, it sounds pretty New Age and possibly a little cliche, but something can really be said for the power of positive thinking. Simply saying to yourself "I'm okay" can have a massive effect on your stress levels. When you are stressing out, you are constantly feeling like you're not coping, therefore by saying to yourself that, actually, you're doing fine, you are shifting the way you think from the "I can't" to "I can". You can do it. You can cope. You can get through. Sometimes you simply need to remind yourself.
- DO SOMETHING YOU ENJOY - Distraction is another important key to helping alleviate stress. Distract yourself with an activity that relaxes you and gives you a sense of enjoyment. Whether that is meeting a friend for coffee (or other preferably decaffeinated beverage), taking a walk, going for a drive, getting a massage or dancing like a maniac to 80s tunes wearing nothing but a lycra bodysuit; find something that gives you a positive boost and helps you to forget. It is important if you are living a life of high commitment to balance that with a life of high nurture. If you are to sustain yourself and keep yourself going at a high intensity, look after yourself. Take a break and don't feel bad about it. You need to take care of yourself. The tasks you 'need' to complete will be there later.
- GET ACTIVE - Ah yes, the always helpful and often under-utilised exercise. Exercise is a fantastic way to alleviate stress, by getting your heart pumping, breathing fresh air through your lungs and feeling the burning of your muscles, you are allowing your body to release the tension and adrenalin that is pumping through your body. By moving around, your body is using up the extra 'oomph' that adrenalin gives you and can then, post-exercise, resume normal function without the backlog of adrenalin and cortisol running through you. Brilliant!
- KNOW YOUR LIMITS - Finally, it is crucial to be aware of your physical limits. Know what situations to avoid and when to say "No". Too often, we try to be people pleasers, try to keep everyone happy, but this only damages our bodies in the long term. By avoiding stressful triggers, you are allowing your body to function normally and work at peak for longer. However, if you find you are in a constant state of stress no matter what you do, you may need to just stop and rest for a day or two.
Be sure to talk to a medical professional if you find you are unable to cope. Often, if you are stressed for a prolonged period of time, you can develop adrenal fatigue (as I did). If this is the case, see your GP who can give you the help you need, possibly in the form of anti-depressants or supplements.