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Alyssa Simpson RD, CDE, CLT
Alyssa Simpson

RD, CDE, CLT​

Stress Triggering Your IBS? 7 Stress Myths You Need to Know

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Is Stress Triggering Your IBS

This month we’ve been talking about stress and how it affects your digestive system.

If you have IBS, or a similar condition, you’re probably aware that your emotions can play a part in your physical symptoms. A stressful event can trigger much more than just feelings of anxiety. In fact for some people, a stressful or traumatic event can be the initial trigger for their IBS symptoms.

This week we’re going to learn more about stress — because it’s a very misunderstood concept.

Let’s be honest, we’re all stressed out these days. Globally, there’s a lot going on. And the past couple of years has been more than any of us expected.

And then, of course, there are your own personal stressors. Whether it’s family, job, relationships, finances, or health problems, there are always things in life that cause us stress.

What is stress?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines stress as, “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” We experience stress when something in life causes tension.

We all know that stress doesn’t feel good. But it goes deeper than that. When stress becomes overwhelming, it’s more than just an emotional problem.

When you’re under constant, or chronic stress it will start to affect your health. Chronic stress or extremely stressful situations can:

? Overtake your thoughts and demand your constant focus

? Increase anxiety and depression

? Cause fatigue

? Raise blood pressure

? Exacerbate a variety of illnesses from heart disease to Alzheimers

? Aggravate — or even trigger the onset of — IBS symptoms

Nobody likes stress. We’d probably all rather be sitting on a beach somewhere without a care in the world. But like it or not, stress is a part of life.

If you want to improve your response to stress, it’s important to understand it. It can be a challenge to sort through the misinformation and half-truths that we hear about stress. So let’s get to the bottom of some of the most widely-believed stress myths.

Then next week, we’ll dig into some key strategies to help you cope with the stress in your life, and in turn, improve your IBS symptoms

Stress Myth #1: All stress is bad for you.

Stress isn’t always bad. In fact, short bursts of moderate stress even have health benefits. Manageable stress can:

Increase memory — A study at the University of Berkley found that brief stressful events caused the brains of rats to create new nerve cells that resulted in better cognitive performance.1

Build resilience — The first time you face a new stressful situation, it may feel like you can barely handle it. But then when you face a similar situation in the future, you’re more equipped and it feels less daunting.

Give you a temporary immune boost — A moderately stressful event stimulates the immune system to protect against illnesses.

Stress Myth #2: You can’t control how much stress you face.

Some stress is inevitable. You can’t always control what happens around you. If a car cuts you off and nearly causes an accident, it’s going to cause you stress. And unless you want to board yourself up in your house, these types of stressors are unavoidable.

But there are things you can do to reduce the stress you experience. It comes down to taking charge of what you can in your own environment. For example, the stress of missed deadlines and forgotten bills can be avoided. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting a system in place that helps you keep track of everything. Whether it’s a phone app or an old-fashioned paper planner, knowing what’s coming can help you avoid unnecessary stress.

Stress Myth #3: Stress feels the same for everyone.

We are unique individuals. And we each respond to potentially stressful situations in different ways. Maybe paying the bills helps your spouse feel in control, while for you it’s a stressful reminder of a difficult financial situation. How do you feel about a tight deadline at work? Some people hate them, while other people find it thrilling.

Stress Myth #4: Following self-care advice will relieve your stress.

When you think of self-care you probably conjure up images of bubble baths and facials. And for some people, these things might be just right for coping with stress.

But sitting in a bath may not work for everyone. If you want to use self-care practices to help you manage stress, make sure what you choose makes you feel good. If you love a relaxing bubble bath, then go for it! But if physical activity and fresh air calms and relaxes you, a hike might be a better fit.

Self-care doesn’t have to look the same for everyone!

Stress Myth #5: A healthy lifestyle will eliminate stress.

Healthy habits are great, and they can make a huge difference in your well-being. Eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and moving your body regularly carry enormous health benefits.

But those things will not eliminate stress. They can make you better equipped to manage the effects of stress. But the only way to eliminate a stressful situation is to deal with it directly.

I’m not suggesting you storm into your boss’s office and quit in an effort to eliminate your stress at work. But it’s worth looking into what you can do that will reduce your stress. Can you draw some boundaries that allow you to enjoy your downtime? Can you take email notifications off your phone? Sometimes taking small steps can make a big difference in a stressful situation.

Stress Myth #6: Stress causes ulcers.

Peptic ulcers are not caused by stress. Most of them are caused by an infection from Helicobacter pylori bacteria.

But that doesn’t mean that stress doesn’t have an effect on your digestion, or how you feel when you eat.

Do you get heartburn when you’re stressed? Many people assume that their stress has triggered an excess of stomach acid. But actually, it’s usually just the opposite.

When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight or flight mode. And when you’re in this state, your body produces less digestive juices — not more. When a stress response is triggered, your body does everything it can to keep you alive. So non-urgent matters like digestion take a back seat.

The best way to avoid stress-related heartburn is to calm down before you eat. When it’s time to eat, do what you can to make yourself comfortable. Take a moment to breathe deeply and relax before you take your first bite. If your body can get out of fight or flight mode and into rest and digest mode, you will be better able to thoroughly digest your food. And you’ll be less likely to develop heartburn.

Stress Myth #7: If you aren’t stressed, you won’t be motivated.

Do you work best under pressure? Many people feel this way. But there’s a difference between feeling motivated by a challenge and working under intense stress.

How can you tell the difference? If you’re feeling challenged in a good way, it may feel fun and exciting. But if you’re experiencing an unhealthy level of stress, it’s likely to feel panicky and physically unpleasant. Genuine stress at work can cause physical symptoms that are not conducive to working well. In fact, chronic stress can even hinder brain function.

If you enjoy a challenge and can turn a deadline into a game, then great! But if you’re finding yourself getting irritable or developing physical symptoms of stress, it might be time to find another tool to help you get your work done.

Stress and IBS

If you have IBS, you’re probably very aware of the stress in your life. Stress and IBS can create a vicious cycle. Stress triggers your symptoms. Then you feel stressed because you’re worried about your symptoms getting triggered.

This is super common. I see it in my practice every single day. And I can help! I use a variety of tools to help my patients not only reduce their symptoms but to get to the root cause of their IBS. If you’re ready to feel better, let’s talk.

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