Managing IBS Worries as the World Reopens

Masks are coming off, masks are going back on.

You can travel again, but there are new warnings based on where you are traveling.

You can enter stores, gyms, and restaurants but you may need to show your vaccination record.

The evolving nature of the pandemic

With the unknowns of the Delta variant and whatever could come next, many people remain a bit anxious. This anxiety is certainly understandable as you come to navigate this stage of the pandemic based on what is best for you and your loved ones.

Over the last year, many people around our country have adapted to the vast changes of our world. Working remotely was a common change that many people were faced with as we collectively became more accustomed to Zooming into work or school. As people got over the initial shock of living in a pandemic, some people began to embrace the comforts of home.

While the pandemic surely created a host of significant stressors for those around the world, in my clinical practice as a GI psychologist, some of the main presenting complaints began to disappear.

Why work with a GI psychologist?

Here are some of the most common concerns that we would address in therapy:

  • Managing morning GI distress, often related to trying to get to work or school on time, fear of being stuck in traffic, and having an urgent need to use the bathroom.
  • Anxiety related to travel: fear of symptoms while on a bus, train, plane, etc.
  • Managing nutrition and food choices when out of the home. Including anxiety around the potential of food choices impacting GI symptoms while on a date, at a business dinner, or while traveling.
  • Anticipatory anxiety related to whether you may have GI symptoms while socializing, dating, entertaining for work.

During the pandemic, many of these concerns were removed. In fact, many of my patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), felt an incredible sense of relief. Travel, socializing and lack of bathroom access all became non-issues. However, we knew that one day the masks would start to come off and we would re-enter the world again. With that would be the need to manage IBS outside the home once again.

Tips for managing IBS-related anxiety related to leaving the house

  1. If you are feeling anxiety about resuming some activities outside your home, ease in if possible. Continue to practice measures that make you feel safe. If you feel a desire to mask, then mask. If you choose to only eat at restaurants outside, then continue to do that. Stress and anxiety can impact IBS symptoms. By focusing on some decisions that are within your control, you can mitigate some of the effects of that stress.
  2. Learn diaphragmatic breathing and use it regularly. This technique can calm the digestive tract by activating the body’s relaxation response. It is an excellent skill to have when you begin to feel a sense of bowel urgency or stomach upset.
  3. Begin to strategize a plan for resuming in-person work, school, or activities. Think about what your routine used to be and ask whether it was working for you or do you need to make adjustments?
  4. Make a plan for preparing meals that work for your belly. Knowing that you have snacks and meals while on the go can prevent stops at convenience stores or fast food places that may agitate your stomach.
  5. Talk about how you are feeling. Often you will learn that others have shared your concerns or are empathetic to your feelings and needs. As you talk through your worries, you are likely to see that you will be able to cope with any challenges you face.

While the challenges of the pandemic are far from over, we are seemingly in a new phase. Digestive distress can arise during periods of transition, stress, and uncertainty. Knowing this can help you to implement coping strategies to mitigate stress and feel more in control of your IBS.

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