Stress, IBS and Getting On With It
One of the biggest triggers for IBS is stress, yet stress isn’t as simple a concept as most people think it is. Technically, stress is anything that puts a physiological demand upon your body. It could be caused by negative events that make you upset, anxious, depressed or sick, but it can also be caused by positive events that you actually want to happen, making you excited or extremely happy.
This is why stress is something that you experience every single day as your body is exposed to any sort of physical or mental demand. It’s a normal part of life. This means that if stress is a trigger for your IBS, the solution isn’t to get rid of all stress from your life – that is biologically impossible to do. Instead, you need a different strategy to stop stress from constantly triggering your IBS.
Step 1: Minimize stress whenever possible
While you can’t get rid of stress completely, you can minimize the amount of stress in your life. This does require making some hard choices, but it’s worth it in the long run.
My process is to reflect on what I gain from an event that causes me stress and compare the benefit to the cost of the stress. For instance, babysitting my nephews can create a lot of mental stress – they are very energetic young boys after all – but the love, hugs and laughter I get in return makes it more than worth the cost.
On the flipside, spending time with people who endlessly criticize or complain, or who make my life more difficult than it needs to be, doesn’t provide enough benefits to offset the cost. So these days, I rarely spend time with people out of obligation and only agree to events where I will genuinely value the experience.
Step 2: Regularly use techniques to lower your stress levels
This step is all about altering how your body responds to stress. A large part of the stress response is automatic and beyond conscious control. Once the stress starts, your thought patterns can make it better or worse, so the trick is to prevent the stress reaction from even starting.
You do this by minimizing the amount of stress hormones in your body so that when something stressful happens, the stress spiral doesn’t start. There are many ways to do this, but here are some common ones:
- Regular exercise
- Meditation or mindfulness practices
- Listening to calming music
- Talking to someone so you don’t keep your feelings bottled up
- Finding ways to smile and laugh
- Changing your environment
- Getting sunshine, fresh air and experiencing nature
- Having a soak in the bath
- Reading a good book
It’s good if you can include some of these activities as a regular part of your life.
Step 3: Have a backup plan for dealing with stress when it arises
Since you can’t completely prevent stress, there will be times when it happens and you have to deal with it. It’s these times when your IBS is most at risk of being triggered. But hopefully, if you do steps 1 and 2 on a regular basis, this is less likely to happen.
When you do get to the point of needing this final step, it’s good to have some strategies worked out in advance so you can bring your stress levels down as quickly as possible. These aren’t new strategies though, they’re the same ones from step 2 – whichever ones were the most effective for you.
For me, going for a walk is excellent because it gives me exercise, gets me out into nature, changes my environment and clears my head. That's four things at once! This may work for you too or you may find a different strategy works better. Regardless, if stress is a trigger for you, then it’s time to create your own plan so that it’s less likely to be a problem.
Do you have a good understanding of what triggers your flares?