Stress affects gut health and intensifies pain, which — for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — can make traveling to see family during the holiday season excruciating.
“People living with IBS often say the holidays are especially stressful, above and beyond the typical holiday stress most people report having," said Tiffany Taft, medical social scientist and clinical psychologist at Northwestern Medicine, in Chicago.
For the 15% of Americans who live with IBS, Taft offered some tips as they gather for the season.
“Stress directly affects IBS through the gut-brain axis, which includes parts of the brain that are part of the body's fight-flight-freeze response," she said. "Stress can amplify pain, alter the motility of the gut — either speed up or slow down, depending on the person — and change the composition of the gut microbiome.”
That can make symptoms more severe. For some, that may mean more frequent trips to the bathroom. For others, it may mean fewer than usual. Symptoms can include increased stomach pain and cramping, bloating and increased urgency to go to the bathroom.
Taft said the holidays can create stress because some people have family members who aren't understanding or supportive about IBS. They may worry or be anxious about asking for changes to the holiday menu because of dietary needs.
Rather than have an unpleasant conversation, the person with IBS may eat foods that don't agree with them, Taft said.
In addition, she pointed out that “traveling can be stressful for patients, including worries about having symptoms while flying or driving long distances. In short, the holidays can place a spotlight on a person's IBS, and strategies the person may have to keep IBS symptoms in check may become compromised, which can become incredibly stressful.”
If you have IBS and are stressed out about traveling, practice relaxation strategies beforehand, she advised.
The body will offer physical cues that you're feeling stressed — for example, shoulders rising to the ears, a clenched jaw or tension across the chest. Pay attention to these signs and take five minutes to relax, Taft said.
This can include meditation with an app, taking deep breaths or imagining a relaxing place. All of these can bring down stress in the body.
Listen to a favorite song, or take a minute to stretch, Taft suggested.
“Identify unhelpful, catastrophic thinking. This isn't the power of positive thinking, rather, taking away the power negative thoughts can have over how we feel,” she explained. “If you notice you're thinking, ‘What if Grandma doesn't understand my IBS diet, and she's going to get so mad,' that may very well be true. Instead of repeating the ‘what if' over and over, lean into it. What can I do if it happens? Make a list of possible ways to solve the problem the ‘what if' poses.”
When in the midst of worrying, people tend to forget all they've already overcome or navigated through, Taft noted.
“Grandma can get angry, and you can handle it,” she said.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on irritable bowel syndrome.
SOURCE: Northwestern University, news release, Nov. 21, 2022