Medically Reviewed by Micol Artom, PhD
In my nearly 14 years of living with Crohn’s disease, I’ve noticed how my stress can cause my disease to be symptomatic and spiral out of control.
So how can we overcome stress? How can we take the reins, regain control of our thoughts, and protect our guts from the mind-body connection? While it may be impossible to eliminate stress in our lives, it’s certainly possible to learn about ways to cope and manage it.
Stress Management Matters
Seb Tucknott, 32, of Brighton, England was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008 at age 21. Tucknott (Twitter: @SebTucknott), who founded the website IBDRelief.com, says he quickly recognized a link between stress and his flare ups. As a business owner, Tucknott noticed he’d flare up when he had an impending project or deadline. “I’ve learned there is more to life than work and money. I try to set manageable deadlines and expectations. If I push myself too far, I will flare, and this will result in a far worse situation.”
For Tucknott, time management is key to controlling his stress levels. “I realize now it’s far better to take smaller chunks of time out and take a little longer to get something done, than push myself, get a flare and end up having to take more time off to recover. It’s easier said than done, but I try my best listen to my body.”
Stress has affected the way Allison Zuck, 27, of St. Louis, Missouri, manages her health. “I was diagnosed within weeks of moving to France to study my junior year of college. I had my first surgery just days after finishing my first month of graduate school.” As if that wasn’t stressful enough, Zuck’s initial diagnosis of ulcerative colitis was revised to Crohn’s. For Zuck, life or work stressors cause her to feel more fatigued, moodier, and short-tempered.
Tips to Lower Stress
Although it’s not news to people with IBD that stress can trigger symptoms, little daily efforts can help lower stress levels. Here are some things that might help you stress less.
1. Schedule short breaks throughout the day.
Tucknott now schedules regular work breaks away from his desk, even if it’s just a five-minute walk around the block. Short breaks allow him to clear his mind and feel refreshed. By giving himself “permission” to switch his thoughts off, he finds he procrastinates less, gets more work done, and feels healthier.
2. Practice belly breathing.
Want to feel more relaxed? Certain breathing exercises, like belly breathing, can help relieve tension and lower stress levels. Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, try this exercise:
- Sit comfortably.
- Put one hand on your belly underneath your rib cage, and one hand on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose, allow your belly to expand and push your hand out. Don’t allow your chest to move during this breath.
- Exhale through pursed lips—use the hand on your belly to push the rest of the air out.
- Repeat 3 to 10 times.
3. Make to-do lists.
By making lists and prioritizing what needs to get done, Zuck says she’s able to visualize what the upcoming day and week will hold. Seeing everything in writing doesn’t feel so daunting.
Each night before you go to bed, jot down your to-do list for the following day. You’ll wake up knowing what you have to accomplish and may feel less overwhelmed by the day ahead.
4. Reduce screen time in the evening.
Sleep helps you reset to take on the next day. If you’re running on empty the moment you wake up, you might be setting yourself up for a stressful day.
Sleep better by eliminating exposure to bright light and screens in the evening. Rather than staring at your phone or laptop, go out for a walk, take a bath, listen to music or a podcast, talk with family members or friends.
5. Be Kind to yourself.
Remember that perfection is not the goal. Everyone gets in over their head at some point, and it’s okay to reach out to others and to ask for help. Remind yourself that sometimes staying home, relaxing on the couch, or taking time for yourself is also productive.
Give yourself credit for all that you take on each day, not only day-to-day life, but life with chronic illness.
Medical reviewer Dr Micol Artom is a Research Associate at King’s College London. She is a psychologist by background and has a PhD looking at clinical and psychological predictors of fatigue in IBD. Her interests are focused on the links between psychology and health and the impact that disease can have on people’s quality of life. Her current research is focused on developing an online self-management programme for symptoms of pain, fatigue and urgency in IBD.
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