IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. There is no one specific cause of this distressing condition of the digestive system. However, if you suffer with it, or indeed, any chronic illness, managing your ability to relax can help ease everyday symptoms.
How are stress and IBS connected?
Your body has a perfectly in-built response to danger. Your brain is ready to prepare your muscles so you can run to escape or fight to defend yourself. Your reflexes become heightened and in a life-threatening moment your heart-beat increases its speed. This enhances your body’s ability to run, keep oxygenated and ensure your survival.
You might recognise that all these responses are the same kinds of responses you experience when you are feeling scared or anxious. They actually are the same responses – your brain’s Limbic System takes charge of this ‘Fight/Fight/Freeze’ response. Yet it can’t distinguish between a life-threatening experience and your ‘worry’. The word ‘worry’ originates from the term ‘strangle’. So when you worry or are anxious over something, your body contracts and becomes tense as it responds to your imagined or perceived stress.
You’re not making it up! You are really feeling fearful, anxious and scared about something. Your brain steps in to help you out, eliciting the stress response. Your body is flooded with adrenaline. This happens whether you are being chased by a madman wielding an axe, or whether you are anxiously anticipating some hospital results or ruminating over daily work challenges. So the more stressed you are feeling, the more your IBS symptoms or other chronic illness symptoms may well bother you. And vice versa, extreme stress can trigger your condition too.
Relaxed yet alert
The gazelle grazing on the African plain illustrate this stress response we all share perfectly. They are quietly grazing, relaxed yet alert. Suddenly, a lion emerges from the bush and chases the herd of gazelle. They immediately respond in the same way you or I would – the adrenaline kicks in. They are able to run for their lives with hearts beating fast and sweat pouring off their sleek coats. Once the danger is over, these gazelle go straight back to their grazing. Eating and digesting wasn’t important a moment a go, but now their bodies have returned to a state of rest and repose, or ‘homeostasis’. They continue grazing, relaxed yet alert once more.
As human beings, we would certainly not return to this peace and quiet so quickly, although our bodies are designed to do so! The adrenaline will fall once we relax. The body returns to a steady heart-beat, relaxed muscles, ability to eat and digest again, regular perspiration and so on.
But hold on a minute – does that really happen to us when we’ve experienced danger, or heard some bad news, or had an argument? No! Unlike the gazelle, we continue to evoke the stressful feelings by ruminating over the experience. We talk about our fears, discuss them, think more and more about them. Instead of allowing our body’s natural response to relax and return to a state of steadiness and calm, we continue to feel aggravated and tense.
Mindfulness and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
It’s not suggested that stress alone is the cause of IBS, but the digestive system is directly influenced by stress. Most of you know from your own experience that when you feel nervous or anxious, you may lose your appetite or your stomach might feel leaden or knotted. So if you are spending large portions of your day in a state of anxiety, your digestive system will be affected. If you can bring a mindful practice into your day it allows you to feel calm and peaceful, thus reducing stress symtoms.
Read: What is the relationship of stress to IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and Stress and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Learn how to manage your stress through mindfulness, relaxation and a greater sense of your own wellbeing. In this way you are helping your body’s own in-built capacity to return to peace, calm and efficient health. Of course, this is relevant to any chronic illness that you might be experiencing.
‘Self-efficacy is a belief in your ability to exercise control over specific events in your life.’
It’s a skill to learn how to relax. Through mindfulness meditations and exercises, you feel as though you are not completely at the mercy of your health condition. Mindfulness and meditation empower you so that you do have some positive resources within yourself that you are capable of implementing.
The body’s Sympathetic Nervous System reduces the adrenaline flow and allows the body to return to a state of balance and calm. Learning to bring a Mindful approach to everyday life is not an overnight solution to eliminate such conditions as IBS, but can contribute greatly to its management, as explored here:
Mindfulness for IBS and Studies on Mindfulness and IBS
Do share your experiences in the Comments below if you have found ways of managing your IBS or other chronic illness you experience, through relaxation or mindfulness.
Check out Place of Serenity for awareness, relaxation and wellbeing.
Useful reference book: Full Catastrophe Living. How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn