One of the most common myths about irritable bowel syndrome is that it's caused by stress. Let's set the record straight once and for all: stress doesn't cause irritable bowel syndrome or any other chronic functional digestive disorder. However, stress can affect almost anyone's mental and physical well-being, and it can certainly exacerbate ongoing IBS symptoms or trigger a flare-up. But in today's modern world, stress is a constant companion. Is there anything we can do to control or minimize it?
While it's impossible to fully escape stress and its effects on our day-to-day lives, there are some simple and proven techniques you can use right now to help you manage stress better and avoid the toll it can take on your health and your IBS.
1. Build a stress-relief toolkit.
Whether you're at home or on the road, keep items handy that will help you relax, such as an engaging novel or biography, a sketchpad, a journal, a book of Sudoku or crossword puzzles, soothing music, or calming herbal teas.
2. Practice conscious breathing.
Focusing on the breath is an excellent mechanism to help regulate the nervous system. Take five minutes to focus on your breathing. Lie down and put both hands on your tummy, covering your belly button. Inhale slowly to a count of 5, hold the breath briefly, and then slowly exhale to a count of 8 or 10. Let your inhalations fill and fully expand your lungs, pushing out your lower abdomen, not your chest. Completely release the air during your exhalations, letting the abdomen relax and retract.
3. Focus on the present moment.
Engage in a mindfulness practice, such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi. Or simply take a few minutes to focus all your attention on a flower, observing its petals, fragrance, color, leaves, stem, and shape. Notice how it feels to be fully engaged.
4. Smell the roses (or lavender or patchouli).
Awaken your sense of smell with an essential oil that elicits a positive association or feeling. Essential oils are typically inhaled using a diffuser, steam bath, or spray to disperse oil droplets into the air. Alternatively, just open the bottle and take a whiff.
5. Express yourself.
Convey your feelings through writing, drawing, singing, playing a musical instrument, dancing, or engaging in free-form movement.
6. Hear the music.
Music is a proven stress reducer for both healthy individuals and people with health problems. Listening to soothing music can lower anxiety levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.
7. Adopt a companion animal.
Research shows that people with companion animals have a lower increase in blood pressure in response to stress than people who do not have companion animals.
8. Reach out.
Connect with others by calling a friend or snuggling with your companion animal.
Give yourself some downtime to just play and have fun. Join an adult sports team, a running club, or a walking group. Sign up for dance classes, walk dogs at the animal shelter, ride your bike, or participate in a board-game group.
10. Visualize serenity.
Picture your digestive tract as a long, calm river gently flowing from your throat to your lower abdomen. Feel the cooling water of the river as it glides against the walls of your digestive tract, cleansing and healing your gut, relaxing your muscles, and filling you with energy.
11. Hum for health.
The simple act of humming has many wonderful side effects. When you hum, the muscles in the face, neck, head, and shoulders relax. Humming activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the body's relaxation response. Humming also helps decrease unproductive thinking and negativity. It calms and soothes, is grounding, quiets the mind, slows down the breath, quickly lowers blood pressure, encourages relaxation and sleep, and helps us focus. Just softly close your lips and hum a favorite tune or chant OM (which involves humming).
12. Turn the tables on self-talk.
Negative thoughts can wreak havoc with stress levels. Flip the switch on negative self-talk by playing with opposites. For example, instead of telling yourself "I feel anxious," you can shift that thought to "I'm calm and relaxed." Instead of telling yourself "I feel stressed," change that chatter to "I'm at peace."
What are some of your favorite ways to de-stress and relax? Post them in the comment section below!