Stress is an expected, if not always pleasant, part of life. On top of annoyances like work headaches and family squabbles, a chronic disease like Crohn’s can really amp up daily stress levels even more. Now you also have to worry, “Will I make it to the bathroom in time?” and “Will everyone know I have IBD?”
The Crohn’s-stress connection goes both ways.
Stress doesn’t cause Crohn’s, but it does make your body release inflammatory chemicals that can irritate your gut and rev up your disease.
Then suddenly you’re in the throes of a flare and having to deal with symptoms like constant diarrhea, cramps, and malnutrition, which can stress you out even more.
Stress messes with Crohn’s control in a few ways:
- It changes the way digested food moves through your intestines.
- It shifts the balance of good and bad bacteria living in your gut (scientists call this your microbiome).
- It alters your immune system in ways that can amp up inflammation even more.
After a stress-induced Crohn’s flare, your gut will need some time to heal.
You can’t erase every source of stress in your life — if you could, you would have done it by now. But you can learn to recognize your stressors and manage them to get a better handle on your Crohn’s.
Feeling like you have more control over your condition could inspire you to take action to improve it (by eating better, exercising, taking your meds, etc.), and potentially act as a buffer against stress.
Try these six tips to get a handle on your stress before it can get out of control and flare up your GI symptoms.
We get it. Popping pills and visiting your doctor’s office for injections or infusions aren’t the most fun ways to spend your day (not even close!). But Crohn’s meds are pretty good at bringing down inflammation and calming GI symptoms.
A few minutes out of your day could save you a lot of pain, aggravation, and frantic sprints to the bathroom. When your gut is calmer, your mind may be, too.
If your medication side effects are stressing you out, a convo with your doctor is in order. There’s usually a fix for that, like changing the dose or switching to a different drug.
Having a GI specialist you trust and can call for any problems is also good for your peace of mind.
One of the easiest ways to calm down quickly when you’re stressed is to sit somewhere quiet and breathe. Just a few deep breaths each day might be enough to help you live more harmoniously with Crohn’s.
Breathing deeply from your diaphragm (the dome-shaped muscle under your lungs) activates the parasympathetic nervous system and triggers a state of relaxation that helps food slide more smoothly through your digestive tract. Basically, deep breathing puts your body into a state of “rest-and-digest.”
Diaphragmatic breathing also gives your stomach and intestines a gentle massage that helps with symptoms like cramps and bloating.
Add some “oms” or other mantras into the mix and you’ve got yourself a meditation session. Mindfulness meditation is a technique where you focus your mind on the present moment and let your worries drift off into the ether.
A small study published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that people with IBD who followed a program of breathing, movement, and meditation had less stress and anxiety, and fewer IBD symptoms. They also had reduced signs of inflammation. Less inflammation is always a plus when you have Crohn’s.
Sometimes a good venting session is just the thing to root out stress. A trained pro (a.k.a., a therapist) can talk you through the problems that are weighing on your mind and flaring up your bowel.
A few studies have found cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helpful for IBD. Other research hasn’t found much use in this technique, which reframes negative thoughts into more positive ones, for helping IBD stress specifically.
Still, there’s a ton of evidence on CBT’s effectiveness for other types of anxiety and stress, so it might not hurt to try. You may get more out of this therapy if your therapist tailors the sessions to your specific needs.
Hypnosis might sound a little weird as a Crohn’s treatment, but we’re not talking about a hypnotist making you quack like a duck after staring at a swinging pocket watch. This is a real medical treatment that actually has some evidence behind it.
Gut hypnotherapy is different. First, your doctor puts you into a deeply relaxed and suggestive state. Then they help you visualize your goals — less inflammation, fewer symptoms, and a digestive system that works.
Research suggests that hypnotherapy might help people with IBD cope better with their disease, and stay in remission longer.
After you’ve gone through the hypnosis process a few times with your doctor, you should be able to hypnotize yourself at home. No doctor or professional hypnotist needed!
There’s a reason why 31 million Americans consider yoga their exercise of choice. This ancient practice combines movement and breath to simultaneously calm the mind and strengthen the body.
Taking a yoga class — whether you do it in person or follow along on your TV — is a safe way to exercise with Crohn’s. Like other mindfulness techniques, yoga can be helpful for reducing anxiety and improving the quality of life in people with IBD.
Any movement is a good stress reliever, whether you walk around the block or take a few laps in the neighborhood pool. (It’s totally fine to swim with Crohn’s — just find the nearest bathroom before you jump in the pool.).
Pick an activity you like, and that you know you’ll do three to five times a week for 30 minutes at a time.
Mild-to-moderate exercise shouldn’t flare your symptoms. In fact, it could help you feel better. For max benefit, do a combo of aerobic, strength training, and flexibility (i.e., stretching) exercises each week.
Crohn’s is a chronic disease, which means it will be with you for a while. Living with regular flares of diarrhea, cramps, and other IBD symptoms is stressful — no question. But how you manage that stress can really change how you feel.
Work to get a handle on Crohn’s stress before it overwhelms you.
Find the coping mechanisms that work best — whether you meditate for 10 minutes a day, walk on the treadmill while blasting your favorite artist’s latest hit, or have a conversation with your therapist.