This has got to be one of the most frustrating things someone with IBS can hear from a doctor: “It’s just stress…”
When I heard “It’s just stress…”, I felt even more hopeless than when I walked in.
Maybe you know this feeling too?
For me stress was something that couldn’t be changed. I was stuck with it.
So this meant I was also stuck with IBS.
But I have since fully recovered from my IBS. For me stress did play a large part, leaving me feeling oversensitive and over-reactive. And I noticed the role of stress in creating physical pain.
It’s just stress: How stress works
Do you feel overly sensitive and reactive to everything?
Everything from food, to people and situations?
You have probably already heard of the vagus nerve. It is the major nerve (the 10th cranial nerve) that runs from your brain, down to the neck and communicates with the major organs in the body.
It has two main ways of functioning:
Its normal state is where the famous parasympathetic nervous system supports your body: You breathe well, digest well and your kidneys, liver and intestines are all working towards health.
The second way of functioning, the sympathetic nervous system, takes over every time we feel stress and have a reaction to fear. The body prepares the famous fight, fight or freeze reaction. It directs the oxygen to the the parts of your body needed for fast action (arms, legs for example) and reduces all other bodily functions. Among others, breathing becomes constricted and shallow, digestion is slowed.
When the perceived danger has passed the body should naturally recover and return to a state of balance (homeostasis).
However if the fight, flight or freeze mechanism becomes a way we become programmed to live every day, we can disturb our natural balance. This is where the adrenal glands stay on alert all the time, creating adrenal fatigue.
The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated each time we sense danger.
Our minds can have a hard time making the difference between day-to-day worries and real danger. Your mind may, for example, sense danger every time you see your boss, a person you don’t like, or feel under time pressure. Or when you watch the news.
I got to a point of continual stress. I felt very tired or anxious and jittery all the time. Oversensitive and over-reactive.
Toning up the vagus nerve
Many of the activities I have mentioned in previous articles to slow down and listen, are also good for toning the vagus nerve.
These are activities like deep breathing, singing, meditation, light regular exercise, regularly getting out into the sun, listening to music, massage, doing something for fun, spending time with pets, positive social interactions, EFT.
These activities have the added benefit of allowing you to get clearer about your IBS triggers.
If your body is firing off all day long, it is hard to see the wood for the trees.
If toning up your vagus nerve becomes a regular habit, your triggers will become clearer to you.
Avoiding negative stimulation
We can’t avoid all stressful situations. We wouldn’t go out of the house! But you can choose to take out some habits that can promote extra stress.
Watching the news
The media have that way of reporting that child that was abducted in that country, on the other side of the planet, in a way that fires off a reaction as if we were living it here and now.
So I stopped watching the news. And started looking for the good things that were happening around me instead.
I made a conscious choice to do this as watching the news and “staying informed” was a habit. It felt really strange at first. But what a relief that was. The really important stuff you get to hear about anyway. So why force yourself to listen to an hour of gloom and doom every day. Use the time to look after yourself instead. Put on some nice music:)
Kick that coffee
Another one to watch out for is coffee. I used to drink about 4 or 5 cups per day. It’s just stress in a cup.
That was a hard negative habit to crack. But I finally managed it.
There is no point on the one hand trying to tone your vagus nerve and become less reactive while taking any kind of stimulant.
If you really do need a coffee to get your bowels moving in the morning, just have one cup of decaf. A study shows that decaf has the same effect on bowel movements as real coffee.
But I can’t get rid of stress!
The third part to changing how stress affects you is this. You can’t necessarily change events – but you can alter your reaction to them. However this is unlikely to happen all by itself.
Stress is a reaction, a label given by your mind to specific situations you have learned to fear. It is for the most part unconscious and automatic. And it can be a powerful IBS trigger.
So the solution lies in becoming aware of those automatic reactions. And choosing to change the labels on those situations and learning to experience them differently.
This is where I started looking into the research into neuroplasticity and the possibility of reprogramming our reactions to specific situations.
There are several modalities for doing this, and it takes a little time and commitment to see results. But for me it was one of the major keys to recovering from IBS.
When you can start clearly seeing your triggers, you can start understanding why they show up as perceived danger.7