From little everyday things to major life events, stress is a part of life. It’s also one of the three main causes of IBS, and for many people with IBS stress can trigger for an IBS flare up.
For National Stress Awareness Day, we’re taking a look at the different types of stress, the ways in which they impact the body and how stress can impact your IBS.
Different types of stress
Change is often a cause of stress. This could be something small like meeting someone for the first time or taking a new route to work or bigger changes like a new job or moving house.
Negative stressors are the things that have the biggest impact. They make our pulse rise, heart beat faster and our muscles tense. It could be things like a difference of opinion, an awkward encounter, or worrying about the best thing to do.
It’s not always external events that cause our stress levels to rise. Often we put ourselves under a lot of pressure or get into the habit of self-criticism
Then there’s the really big things: a relationship ending, the death of a close relative, a bad injury, a physical assault, sexual abuse. These things can be so devastating, they’re best understood as a kind of life trauma.
Extreme stress can often persist after these kinds of trauma as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may occur immediately after the event, but can also resurface years later. This trauma also sensitises people to everyday stresses.
Our stress response
When something pushes our buttons, it triggers our fight or flight response, releasing adrenaline from the adrenal glands.
As the adrenaline pumps round our bloodstream, it accelerates the heart rate, raises the blood pressure, increases the rate and depth of respiration, stops digestion, mobilises our natural immune responses and makes us more alert and focussed.
Effectively, your body puts everything on hold while you deal with the situation that’s demanding your attention.
When stress occurs over a longer period, such as an ongoing argument with a colleague or an unhappy relationship, the stress hormone cortisol also comes in to play.
High cortisol demands our body’s energy resources, increasing blood sugar, breaking down muscles for protein and energy, and laying down accessible stores of abdominal fat.
It also impacts the immune system, enhancing autoimmune or allergic responses and suppressing your defences against infection.
Repeated stress can suppress responses to cortisol, provoking an inflammatory response against our own tissues and leading to disorders that might include IBS.
The impact of stress on the gut
Whereas some people may get a headache or tense shoulders when they’re stressed, for people with IBS that tension goes straight to their gut.
Our sense organs pick up on stress. Then the amygdala, (the mass of grey matter inside the cerebral hemisphere of your brain, involved with the experiencing of emotions), stimulates the sympathetic nervous system.
The signals from the amygdala directly increase the sensitivity of the gut, allowing more signals from the gut to reach the brain.
Whereas usually you might not feel the pains of digestion, the direct increase in gut sensitivity due to high stress means people experience abdominal pain and other symptoms.
Dealing with stress
Mindfulness has become increasingly popular over the last few years and with good reason.
The goal is not necessarily to empty your mind of thoughts, but to be in the present moment, acknowledging the thoughts that are there but not chasing after them.
Putting some time aside each day to process the day and let go of the little stresses can help stop tension building in the long term.
A body that’s well looked after will also be able to cope better when adrenaline or cortisol levels rise. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and exercising regularly.
Past trauma can also be a trigger for IBS. Research shows that people with IBS are more likely to have experienced more fundamental life changes and traumatic events than those with other gut diseases. This may sensitise them to react to everyday events with symptoms that cannot be explained.
If you’ve had past experiences that could be classed as traumatic, it may be worth considering counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to reflect on those events and how they may be manifesting themselves in your day-to-day life as gut symptoms.