3 strategies to control stress

By Michelle Pickens, Guest Contributor

One of advice my gastroenterologist gives to me is to reduce my stress level and, overall, keep my anxiety at a minimum. Stress can trigger Crohn’s flare-ups and worsen symptoms, so, in theory, this advice is great.

The thing is: When you try and apply it to real life, it’s definitely not as easy as it sounds.

A cycle of anxiety and digestive issues

I am a naturally anxious person and have been since the age of 5. I vividly remember my first panic attack and the other crippling ones that followed throughout the years. Looking back, I realize that starting at such a young age, my anxiety fueled my digestive issues and vice versa.

Here is an example: When I was younger, I was always nauseous, and my parents would tell me it was because of my anxiety. Now, there is no fault to them here, because honestly, the amount of times a day I would swear I was going to throw up did seem a bit over-dramatic. But looking back… it wasn’t. I actually felt sick, even though everyone would tell me it was “just my anxiety.”

When I actually did get sick, I would be embarrassed because it was so hard for me to control. And then I became anxious about that.

I became so anxious about getting sick that I was actually making my stomach worse off. It was a vicious and never-ending cycle.

IBD anxiety as an adult

As an adult, the anxiety only worsened because now I actually had things I was responsible for. The regular anxiety that surrounded life was heightened by having IBD, and it could send me into irrational spirals of concern, fear, and downright panic:

What if I am sick again this week?

What if, since I’m sick, my boss doesn’t give me that raise I’ve been working toward? Worse, what if he fires me because I’ve been sick so much? How am I going to pay my medical bills?

What if my friends are mad because I had to cancel on them again?

Why are my symptoms so bad this week? What if something else is wrong? What if I am getting worse?

If you are anything like me, you are reading these questions and nodding to yourself because you understand this internal “talk track” far too well.

The problem is, all the anxiety I have about my IBD actually makes it infinitely worse.

How I control my anxiety and stress

Figuring out a way to stop this vicious cycle of anxiety and symptoms has been a mission for me. Here are my top 3 tips that work for me, although everyone is different, so you also need to find what works for you.

Of course, there are other things, like therapy, acupuncture, medication, you name it—all of which I have tried. But what I’m sharing here are tools that you pretty much only need yourself for. There are no professionals, no prescriptions required. Just you taking control of your anxiety.

1. Be as open as possible with those around you

I know this potentially sounds like the most anxiety-inducing thing ever, but hear me out. A lot of my anxiety, I have realized, has stemmed from the fear of the unknown. What if I tell my boss that I am sick? What if I have to cancel on a girl’s weekend? What if I need to ask for help? I spend a lot of time obsessing over the potential reactions of those around me or the potential situations that could go wrong. Most of the time, I am imagining people’s reactions to be so much worse than they really will be.

After recognizing this pattern, I began implementing this “being as open as possible” rule into my life. It makes me feel better when people close to me know my situation and know what precautions may need to be taken. By just getting that out of the way at the beginning of a situation, I feel infinitely less stressed.

This is a small but recent example: Every time I fly, I get extremely anxious that I am going to get sick mid-flight and I won’t be able to get up and go to the bathroom because the fasten seat belt sign will be on or we will be taking off or landing or something like that. On a recent flight, when I was having a particularly bad flare, I explained to the flight attendant that I had a medical condition and would appreciate if I could be seated near the bathroom. I was able to sit near the bathroom AND she had no issues with me getting up during the flight when I needed to. Looking back, it seems so silly that I would be anxious about that, but by just being open and asking for what I needed, I was able to decrease my stress level significantly.

2. Practice positive self-talk

Is this a little clichéd? Yes. Is it effective? Yes. I use positive self-talk to pump myself up pretty much all day every day. When you have anxiety, your mind is constantly swarming with stressful thoughts that are hard to get rid of. My strategy is to crowd out those negative thoughts with positive ones.

I know, on bad days, it is hard to even positive self-talk yourself out of bed. But even the smallest positive things are better than letting my brain overwhelm itself with the alternative. On the hard days, I make sure to congratulate myself on little wins—seriously, even ones as small as taking a shower.

On the good days, I write myself notes or journal about the positive things going on in life so that when I am struggling or find myself down an anxious rabbit hole thinking there is no way things are going to get better, I can refer back to my journal. It reminds me that there was a time when things were stable and calm, and that these feelings are completely attainable.

3. Get into a nighttime routine

The evening is when I often experience the worst anxiety. This can cause trouble sleeping, which in turn can set me up for a really bad day the next day.

For me, a nighttime routine is important because it signals to my body that I am ready to wind down. It also gives me a built-in opportunity for relaxation and self-care. My nightly routine consists of making some chamomile and lavender tea. While I enjoy my tea, I usually either take a bubble bath to relax, always adding in some lavender essential oils, or I read an entertaining book (nothing too heavy before bed). My last thing that I always do is set up my diffuser with essential oils. My usual combination is lavender and eucalyptus—and sometimes Thieves Oil, as well, which is a blend of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and rosemary essential oils.

All of these things aid in relaxation, but it isn’t just about the products I’m using or even what I’m doing… I think the simple fact of having a bedtime routine signals to our brains that it’s time to chill out for the night.

What I’ve found is that all of the steps in a nightly routine should be things that are calming to you and that you genuinely enjoy doing. In other words, they shouldn’t be a chore. It’s also a plus if you can incorporate these routines even when you travel. For example, I always travel with my tea and a mini lavender essential oil that I spray onto my pillow.

When it comes to IBD and stress, let’s be role models

I think many of us within the IBD community get advice from our doctors to reduce our stress and reduce our anxiety. But simply trying to live life with IBD in the most normal way we know how often creates even more stress and anxiety.

So, here’s the thing: There are plenty of people without IBD who live their whole lives and never figure out how to get a handle on their stress and anxiety.

By us having to try and manage our stress and anxiety, I like to think those of us with IBD are one step ahead toward living a more peaceful life. And who knows? Maybe we can even be role models, sharing the tools we’ve developed and what works for us within the IBD community, with our friends and families, and even beyond that out into the world.

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