You’re sitting on a beach. The waves are lapping up on the shore. The sun is warming your skin, while a light breeze blows just enough to keep you cool.
Your bank account is full, your to-do list is done, and you haven’t a care in the world.
If that’s what our lives looked like, we wouldn’t need this article. But for the vast majority of us, things are not always smooth sailing. In fact, in our modern hurry-up world, most of us are under significant stress.
And if you have IBS or other stomach issues, stress is an even bigger deal for you.
Stress can trigger symptoms, or even mark the start of a chronic condition. For the IBS patient, stress can get the ball rolling on a variety of symptoms:
💩 Bloating and abdominal pain
Your nervous system has two modes: parasympathetic and sympathetic.
The sympathetic nervous system response is more commonly known as fight or flight. When you experience stress, your body launches into fight or flight mode. Your heart rate and breathing speed up, your brain becomes more alert, and a whole host of biochemical processes are triggered in your body.
The parasympathetic nervous system response is also known as rest and digest. Your breathing is slow and steady and you feel calm. While it’s in a parasympathetic state, your body can focus on things like digestion, reproduction, and the rebuilding of cells and tissues.
We need both states. But in our crazy, contentious, modern culture, we spend much more time in a sympathetic — fight or flight — mode than our bodies are able to handle.
So while you can’t get rid of stress, there are things you can do to cope.
The best way to deal with stress is to directly address the cause of that stress when you can.
Whenever possible, take action to eliminate or mitigate the cause of your stress. You can try things like:
💡 Put a system in place that will help you power through those dreaded tasks on your to-do list.
💡 Have that tough conversation you’ve been avoiding.
💡 Face the financial issue that you’ve been pretending isn’t there.
💡 Divide up or outsource the chores you’re having trouble getting to.
💡 Enlist your family’s or roommate’s help in building routines to keep your home clean.
None of these ideas are easy. And I don’t recommend you tackle your whole list of dreaded things all at once. But when we have a source of stress in our lives that we CAN do something about, we often feel better once it’s finally dealt with.
If you need support in dealing with these things, it’s okay to ask. You don’t have to handle everything alone. You might want to consider:
✔ Hiring someone to help with some of the projects you’re avoiding if you can afford it.
✔ Working with a mental health professional such as a therapist to help you sort through and deal with the stressors in your life.
✔ Getting started with a dietitian to help you identify the hidden food sensitivities, food intolerances, and toxic exposure that may be causing you physical stress.
Sometimes when we’re stressed out, it feels like the entire world is crumbling around us. And then small stresses can feel insurmountable.
When you are feeling stressed, take a few deep breaths and look at your situation objectively. This isn’t about discounting your experience or gaslighting yourself. But if you’re feeling triggered by something and your reaction is stronger than it needs to be, taking an honest look at your current reality can help calm you down.
It helps to know your tendencies as well. When something happens to cause stress, the story we tell ourselves about it matters. If you tend to imagine the worst possible outcomes in every situation, it might be a good idea to recognize that trend. Then you can start to change your mindset.
High stress and bad digestion can create a vicious cycle when it comes to IBS. Remember, digestion is a north-to-south process, meaning that if something goes wrong early on, it can affect things down the line.
For example, if you’re in fight or flight mode when you eat, it keeps your stomach from producing enough digestive juices to properly process your food. Then as the food passes through your intestines, it can cause all sorts of digestive issues all the way down the line.
✔ Eat in a relaxing environment. Avoid eating while you’re driving or working.
✔ Take a few deep breaths before you eat so you can get into rest and digest mode.
✔ Chew your food thoroughly so the mechanical process of chewing and the enzymes in your saliva can start breaking down your food before it even hits your stomach.
✔ Avoid drinking too much while you’re eating. Drinking lots of water can dilute your digestive juices, making it harder for your body to break down your food.
It’s no surprise that lots of alcohol and junk food aren’t good for you. They provide your body with chemicals and additives instead of nutrition.
Unhealthy foods can cause internal stress. Your body has to eliminate toxins and deal with the highly processed foods you eat. This can put a strain on organs like your liver.
But there’s more to eliminating food stress than just cutting back on the obvious unhealthy foods like soda and fast food.
If you have digestive issues like IBS or SIBO, or an autoimmune condition, you likely have foods that your body doesn’t react well to. And when you eat these foods, they can cause you digestive stress.
You may figure out some of your food sensitivities on your own through trial and error or by working through the process of an elimination diet. But I highly recommend working with a health practitioner who can use lab testing (where appropriate) to help you identify and eliminate the foods that are causing your problems.
I don’t recommend mail-order food sensitivity testing. It’s pretty unreliable.
When it comes to stress, exercise is a big deal. Exercise is a powerful way to relieve stress.
Exercise causes your body to release endorphins (feel-good hormones) that can help boost your mood. Regular exercise can help you relax, improve your sleep, and even reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Pick a type of activity you enjoy. You don’t have to go lift weights at the gym. You can take a walk or bike ride. Or even try something new like yoga or Tai Chi. The important thing is to get your body in motion.
It’s no secret that our indoor environments can be stressful. The fluorescent lights at work… the dishes in the sink… the noise of the tv….
Getting out in nature can make all the difference when you’re stressed. Nature is calming for the nervous system. When you step outside, you can take in your surroundings at a calming, natural pace instead of having your attention rapidly drawn from one thing to another.
The sounds of nature are soothing — the wind in the trees, the gentle sound of running water, the song of birds.
Being in nature can help you be more mindful in the moment. Try touching a tree and really thinking about how it feels. Or ground yourself by taking off your shoes and walking barefoot in the grass or sand.
Consider getting in your activity outside as well. Exercising in nature has even more calming benefits than going to the gym.
Generally, technology does more to contribute to stress than detract from it. But there are exceptions. Consider giving one of these stress-reducing apps a try:
This app is specifically designed for people who suffer from IBS. It features a 6-week digital hypnotherapy program to help you manage your IBS symptoms by working on the communication between your gut and brain. You can learn more here.
Calm is a meditation app with meditations geared toward a variety of concerns, including stress and sleep. Many of them are only about 10 minutes long. The app also has a variety of nature sounds, unguided meditations, and sleep stories. You can learn more here.
This app uses EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) — also known as tapping. Their website claims that you can reduce your anxiety by 41% with just 10 minutes of tapping. These are guided meditations of sorts where you tap on specific points on your body. If you’re new to tapping, it’s completely painless and easy. You can learn more here.
The best way to improve your IBS is to find the root cause and deal with it. IBS is complex. And while reducing your stress definitely can help, it won’t solve the underlying problems that are causing your symptoms.
Working with a practitioner who is trained and experienced in helping IBS patients will help you deal with the physiological issues that are causing your symptoms so you can finally feel better and get on with life.
I’ve worked with over 1,000 patients who suffer from digestive issues, including IBS and SIBO. And I’d be happy to take a few minutes to talk with you about your symptoms and concerns. Let’s see if we can get you feeling better!