Yep, stress is a big deal in our modern world! It’s the reason this year’s Mental Health Awareness week was dedicated to it. Yet so many of us have a difficult time keeping on top of it.
It’s probably no surprise to know that stress is also a major trigger of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Now, not all stress is bad. Sometimes it can be just the little boost we need to improve our performance or to get us to push ourselves to do things that scare us. In fact, even our view on stress can affect whether it’s a bad thing (check out Kelly McGonigal’s much viewed TED talk on why we should sometimes see stress as positive).
However chronic stress is an issue and when you’re caught up in the middle of a stress maelstrom it can be hard to see the light. Stress can also become a habit and a learned behaviour, so that we fall into a vicious stress circle.
This was something I learned the hard way.
From studying right into my working my life, I became used to operating in a state of constant low level stress. It was almost like I needed to be ‘on’ the whole time to perform at my best.
My mind would run overtime and small things, like a spelling mistake in an email or thinking I’d said the wrong thing, would wake me up at 3am and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I even found it difficult to wind down properly on holidays and I hate to think how many precious moments I lost worrying about irrelevant things.
The thing is, this was my norm, so I found it difficult to switch out of what I was doing. However I wasn’t completely unaware; I ran, practised tai chi and ate well because I knew I needed to feel a bit more on top of things. But my digestion was clearly telling me that something was still a bit out of whack.
What happens when we get stressed
While our bodies and brains have evolved over millennia, there are parts of our brain that are still very much back in caveman and woman times.
This is great because it means we don’t need to consciously think about keeping our heart pumping, our legs moving and to digest our food. Our brain and body takes care of all this, most particularly via our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS contains 3 key elements:
- Sympathetic nervous system – otherwise known as our ‘fight or flight’ system
- Parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for the opposite state, aka our ‘rest and digest’ state
- Enteric nervous system – the so-called ‘second brain’ that is web of neurons in the lining of our gastrointestinal system
Our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are complementary. While they keep us alive and allow us to react to experiences efficiently, unfortunately a lot of these reactions are fairly instant and unconscious (though it doesn’t mean that without practise we can’t learn to adjust how we respond). So how does the brain govern what happens?
Let’s start with our reptilian brain. This is the oldest part of our brain with strong and instant reactions around some of our most basic instincts (the 4 F’s – feeding, fighting, fleeing – and, ahem, reproducing). It’s also developed to constantly be on the look out for danger. When saber tooth tigers were roaming the world, this behaviour made sense and a well-honed ‘fight or flight’ response was entirely appropriate.
However what controls more of our ANS response is messages is passed, via our senses, through the second oldest section of our brain: our limbic or mammalian brain. This area is our emotional ‘control centre’, governing our emotional responses to sensory experiences.
An area called the amygdala, which contributes to the emotional processing of situations, detects the perceived danger and sends a signal to another area of the limbic brain, the hypothalamus. This sends a signal of stress via the ANS to our adrenal glands, which sit just above our kidneys, that we need some adrenaline quick smart to get our heart pumping faster and kick us into fight or flight.
After this initial adrenaline surge (and all of this happens very quickly of course!), if we still detect danger further signals are sent to our adrenal glands to release cortisol. This keeps our body in a high state of alert with all the associated physiological ‘fight or flight’ responses.
As a result our heart rate increases, our breathe becomes more rapid, pupils dilate for greater focus and our sweat glands are stimulated (to help prevent injury if attacked). This process also inhibits secretions in the digestive system. When you’re running away from a tiger, digesting food isn’t really any essential function. It can also reduce the blood flow in the ‘thinking’ part of your brain so you can react more quickly.
So this is of course fine and dandy, and jolly well clever of our bodies to do this without us needing to think what to do when an emergency strikes. However, in our modern developed world, where we don’t tend to be so much at risk of a tiger mauling, this instinct can cause problems.
Everyday stressors like money worries, looming deadlines, heavy traffic, an impending visit from the in-laws or family pressures can send us into same reaction. Another area of our limbic brain, the hippocampus, then embeds and learns this stress response for future situations.
You can see how easy it is to get caught up in a loop of stress without even realising it’s happened, especially if, as it was for me, this is just your normal way of living.
Now I’ve of course simplified the above a bit as I’m not a neuroscientist, but I find it’s helpful to understand some of what our body and brain is up to when it comes to stress.
The link between IBS and stress
I mentioned above that one of the many physiological responses of our body being in ‘fight or flight’ mode is our digestive system getting downgraded as a secondary process for survival. It therefore makes sense that if you are living in a high state of stress, your digestion is going to be compromised.
But the link between IBS and stress is a little more complex than this. The connection between our brain and our gut goes both ways!
You’ll likely have heard about the importance of our gut microbiome and the balance of bacteria that keeps our gut working well. The current thinking now is that an imbalance of the bacteria can in and of itself be an issue for some people.
The third part of our Central Nervous System, the enteric nervous system, is the one in our gut and it sends signals back up the vagus nerve to your brain. If you’ve got an unhappy gut, your brain is going to get these unhappy signals and react accordingly. In fact, improving gut bacteria has even been linked with lower cortisol levels (see my Further Reading list below for the study by Kristin Schmidt et al).
And it’s not just about what’s happening in the gut.
Physical tension in your body can also send signals to your brain that you are stressed. As so many of us unintentionally hold stress in our bodies – our computer-hunched shoulders being just one example – our brain is getting signals that we are stressed and it needs to go into is stress-hormone production process.
Add to this the stress about being stressed, or being stressed about trying to deal with IBS, and, well, you can probably see for yourself how all this can add up to tummy troubles.
This is why finding ways to calm both your mind and body are really important when it comes to managing IBS.
Finding ways (you enjoy!) to manage stress
After all the doom and gloom, I want to offer you some hope that it is possible to manage things better and to even re-train how your brain responds in stressful situations.
One of the reasons meditation has been so important to me is that it has helped me be much more aware of when I’m stressed. This has allowed me to reset some of the automatic responses I was trapped in for so long. Becoming more conscious can also you help you better switch on your thinking (i.e. neocortex), rather than reactive brain, when it comes to managing stress.
Alongside this, meditation has given me techniques to manage the stress when I am aware that I’m moving into a ‘fight or flight’ state. Sometimes this is as simple as just accepting that I’m a bit stressed and that’s okay. However if I’m feeling more than just the edges of a stress niggle or that my stress response is over the top, I will turn to techniques such as slow breathing, the gentle repetition of a calming phrase or mindful walking.
Just the act of taking a few deep and slow breaths, with or without your eyes closed, can start to combat the ‘fight or flight’ state and activate the opposite system: your parasympathetic nervous system. There is even evidence, based on a small sample, that regular meditation can reduce the grey matter in the amygdala (another area of the brain that is connected to anxiety and stress – see below for the full study).
But meditation is just one tool!
Exercise has time and time again been shown to have a positive impact on mental health. This doesn’t need to be a full blown high intensity spinning class or training for a marathon. Go for something you enjoy and that makes you feel good. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of an IBS flare up anything too intense can feel a bit much for your body, so it’s important to be kind to yourself.
Walking, particularly somewhere green, is hugely beneficial. You can do this walk specifically as a mindful activity or just for the pure enjoyment of being outside and moving. Other forms of movement, like yoga or tai chi, that help build your body awareness and, depending on the yoga you do, your breath connection can also be helpful.
Don’t underestimate the power of spending time with (positive) others to help you switch off your stress brain. A comforting cuppa or walk shared with a companion, or companions, is a great soothing tool. If you don’t know anyone in your local area, have a look on Meetup.com or Google for local special interest groups as this can help you find like-minded people to spend some stress-free time with.
I also personally find it’s helpful to write regularly. I journal most mornings to get stuff out of my head. It’s another important part of recognising what I’m feeling, but without allowing myself to get too caught up in these feelings.
Ultimately it’s about finding a handful of tools that work for you and that you can stick with when you get stressed – as well as at times when you’re feeling more in balance.
It’s also about making small stress management changes one at a time, rather than trying to completely overhaul your life (which, let’s be honest, is kinda stressful).
Feeling inspired? Choose one thing that you can do today or tomorrow to get yourself started. This could be to:
– start your day with three considered breaths before you open your eyes
– get a date in your diary for a cup of tea with a friend, family member or your partner
– get out for a 15 minute walk before work or over lunch
– write for 5 minutes about how you’re feeling today, without any judgement or trying to change anything; just log your thoughts and emotions
I’d love to hear in the comments below what you do to keep your stress in check.
How to make stress your friend – Kelly McGonigal, TED Talks
Understanding the stress response – Harvard Health Publishing
The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson
Kristin Schmidt, et al. Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2015; 232(10): 1793–1801.
Britta K Hölzel, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging , 2010. 191(1), 36-43