“Gut instinct”, “I could feel it in my guts”, “I was sh**ting myself [with fear]”,“sick with worry”,“my tummy aches”, “I’ve got butterflies” are all phrases we know and use regularly and which show how our guts are very closely linked to our emotions.
Stress along with fear, worry and tension is a negative emotional state that can create sensations of unease in the body, but it can also affect the release of hormones and chemicals within the body that create physical responses too.
For instance, adrenaline which is released when we are scared or have had a shock (but also in this modern world can be released through road rage, money worries, relationship issues etc.) directly affects the gastrointestinal system as it relaxes the muscles of the stomach and intestine and decreases the flow of blood and oxygen, effectively stopping digestion. Over time this could impact on gut bacteria, cause inflammation (as food is not properly digested) and possibly lead on to other intestinal diseases.
Whilst stress has not been proven to cause IBS, it has long been known to make the symptoms of IBS worse. Ironically, many sufferers believe the only stress in their life comes from having IBS and without it their life would be perfect! There is evidence however that there is a link between anxiety and the likelihood of developing IBS after a severe bout of gastroenteritis and other research has shown that people with IBS are more likely to have suffered from major emotional incidences in their childhood. So, which came first? So far, we don’t know but we do know that it is an area that needs to also be addressed in any programme to tackle the symptoms of IBS.
Keeping a stress diary is a good place to start to see if the stress in your life makes your IBS symptoms worse. I actually like my clients to regularly keep a food, mood, sleep and stress diary so that we can look to see how all of these areas have impacted on their symptoms. Try it for a week and see if you can pinpoint the areas in your life that give you the most stress and make a change – do you always leave things to the last minute, so you run out of time etc.
Other ways to counter stress (because we can’t always remove the stress, especially if it is work related) is to not look at your phone/emails etc.before bed, go for a walk at lunchtime, try some relaxation apps, try yoga or another similar ‘down’ exercise (doing a high intensity workout is stressful on top of a stressful day!) or just take time to take a couple of deep breaths and re-set throughout the day–give it a try!
In through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, out through the mouth for 8 seconds–repeat up to 4 times and you’ll be surprised how effective it is!