Stomas & Stomach Aches – Managing Stress & Ibd
Stress & IBD
April is Stress Awareness Month, and unfortunately from knowing of others’ experience with IBD, as well as my own, stress is something that can, and does, impact Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) hugely. The two can go hand in hand on a number of levels. Stress doesn’t cause flare-ups necessarily on its own but can be a huge contributory factor.
What is stress?
Stress means different things to different people. To me, I’d define it as the way our body responds to changes in our lives, big or small. This is often emotionally for me, which can then have a knock-on effect on physical health. Not all stress is bad. Stress triggers our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ responses, which can even be the difference between life and death in some situations. For example, you unintentionally step out into the road not knowing a car is coming then realise at the last minute. Our body then responds immediately by going into ‘fight’ mode, alerting us to stop suddenly in our tracks to avoid being hit by said car.
Fight, flight or freeze?
These stages are the body’s automatic response to danger and all impact how stress impacts us and how we may choose to deal with it.
- Our ‘fight’ response can sometimes lead to us feeling agitated or panicked and may cause us to do things such as yell at others, which in turn can leave us feeling physically exhausted, and can also negatively impact our relationships.
- ‘Flight’ mode can kick in as the opposite of ‘fight’. This is where we avoid a situation because of the anxiety/fear we have surrounding it. However, this can actually lead to more stress building if we never confront our fears.
- ‘Freeze’ mode is literally as it sounds. For example, you may get asked a question in a meeting full of people, and it suddenly feels as if your mind has gone blank.
The challenges of stress
When stress builds in the wrong ways, this is when stress can become a problem. If you are constantly on “high alert”, your body may react to situations that aren’t necessarily going to pose a threat as if they are harmful. I have experienced this, and still do experience this, quite a lot as a result of stress and anxiety.
Physically, stress can impact me if I do not try to manage this better. I feel my heart race, I start to sweat more, my muscles tense, I feel shaky, “on edge” and I sometimes feel nauseous. This can lead to me feeling physically exhausted. It can cause me to feel emotionally burnt out to the point where I feel unable to cope with all the emotions I am feeling.
IBD & stress – a vicious cycle
Medical studies have shown that stress is a common cause of someone experiencing an IBD flare-up. Different events in our lives can bring on stress. For example, we may worry that we can’t sit through a meeting at work (if we manage to work and get to work), without having to rush out of the room, which can cause fear of embarrassment or fear we may not make it to the toilet in time. Luckily, thanks to my stoma, I do not have this to deal with anymore, but I stress in another way. The unpredictability of my stoma noise can cause me to be stressed in such situations, especially if I feel getting out of the room would draw more attention to myself. Ironically, this can actually make the noises more frequent and louder.
A lot of IBD sufferers also stress about getting stressed, which can cause symptoms to re-occur as a result and throw them back into the midst of active disease. It really can be one vicious cycle.
Through learning how to control stress, we can minimise the impact it has on IBD and our health in general.
Ways to cope with stress
- – Planning – this is something that can help your life in general and enable you to feel more organised. For an IBD example, you may feel like making said journey may be a lot more manageable if you pinpoint the route before you go & know where there are toilets, should you get caught short. It is important to carry a spare pair of clothes with you I feel as a backup, for those (hopefully more rare) inevitable cases where you do get caught short.
- – Being realistic – stress and pressure are two different things. Putting pressure on ourselves is needed sometimes to enable us to do things such as meet deadlines. However, it is important not to put too much pressure on ourselves and to speak up if we feel the pressure may be getting too much.
- – Meditation – this can provide a great “escape” and some well needed “me” time. Learning to breathe more effectively and take time to slow things down in our busy lives can really help us be able to control stress more. Visualisation is a great meditation technique that can help bring some calm to your mind. You can find some visualisation exercises on an internet search. There are also mindfulness apps available to help you adopt meditation more consistently in your daily life if you wish to do so.
- – Writing your thoughts down – this is a great way of loading your stresses off your mind, especially when you don’t feel like talking out loud about it. If you’re worried someone may find it after, tearing up the piece of paper is fine. A lot of people find that once their stresses are out on the paper, they don’t need to keep the paper to keep revisiting their stresses, but that simply writing it down does help them process things.
- – Get moving – a brisk walk can help to clear your head, as can a workout, or getting out on your bike or walking the dog.
- – Yoga – I find this can really help me. I tried yoga outside recently following some videos on YouTube, and it was really calming and refreshing to be out in the sun on my yoga mat.
- – Stay hydrated
- – Eat for wellbeing – knowing what to eat is another good tip for managing stress. This can often be tricky with IBD/a stoma, as the typical “good foods” such as fruit & vegetables can be hard to digest. I find making smoothies and soups a good way to make these foods more digestible with little to no symptoms after eating.
- – Sleep – trying to get a good night’s sleep is vital. This can often be tricky with IBD and is something I struggle with at times, but I find adopting a rough bedtime routine e.g. going to bed and waking up around the same time, can help.
- – Trying to adopt a more positive mindset – this is easier said than done when you are struggling and isn’t always achievable on some days, which is okay. The important thing is to be gentle with yourself and to try to surround yourself with things that will make you feel good such as motivational, positive quotes or watching programmes that make you feel good.
- – Reach out to others – when needed. Ask yourself who may help you feel better in these circumstances and try to minimise deeper conversations with those who you feel may make you feel worse. It is okay to distance yourself when needed. If people wonder why you are distant, you are not forced to explain yourself, but it may be a good idea to say that you’re just taking some time out for you. Anyone who cares for you in the right way will understand this.
- – Disconnecting from technology – this is another, and often underestimated, way of managing stress. In our technology-rich world, it is easy to feel a slave to your phone, and often, other people. Things such as reading or colouring can help you to do this. If you struggle, leave your phone in a drawer or in another room & allocate yourself a time not to check it until. If you become anxious, for example, if someone you love is ill, that you might miss an important call, assign a ringtone for that person only that is different and leave your phone off silent, so you know if the call is from them it may be urgent.
Maintaining a better relationship with stress
The above list is not exhaustive. You may already have your own ideas & it is vital to do what works best for you. It is also good to try new things & be open to change when finding ways to cope with stress, where you feel this is manageable.
Above everything with stress, take time to prioritise your own well-being and learn to listen to your body so you know what the warning signs are. This way, you can hopefully implement coping strategies before they do damage.
The better you become at listening to your body & knowing what you need to do to look after yourself, the more manageable stress should feel over time.
Please remember that there may be times where you feel stress takes over & you feel less in control of it. This is perfectly human to feel this way & doesn’t mean you are a failure. Try to accept that there are bad times, re-assess the situation & input some positive coping techniques to get you to a better place. Life after all is up and down and is never on a constant level.
If everything still feels hard to manage or you are indeed worried that you may need medical advice at any point, always consult a medical professional.