We all know that Irritable Bowel Syndrome is often put down to stress.
We’re aware of the usual sources of stress – the uncertainties of life that we have little control over such as money worries, relationship issues, public speaking, family and work pressure.
But there are other, less obvious, sources of stress that you may not be aware of. There’s a wide range of emotional, physical and environmental stressors which could be triggering your IBS that you CAN do something about.
So if you’ve been told that your guts are reacting to stress, yet you’re not dealing with any major life issues and you don’t feel particularly stressed, it can be helpful to know what those other stressors are.
Here’s one that I bet you’re not aware of.
It’s the way you start to your day.
Yes, that’s right.
If you’re sensitive to stress, the way you start your day can set the tone for how you feel for the rest of the day. Not only that, it can also determine how you react to those unavoidable stressors of life – the job, the kids, the bills etc.
My client Anna was suffering badly with IBS. Her doctor had told her it was due to stress and that she should learn to relax.
‘But,” she said “I’m not stressed. I don’t have any money worries. I love my husband, my job, my family. I’m very lucky. Life is good. The only thing that stresses me is my IBS. If I could get rid of that I’d have nothing to worry about!”
Her train journey to work was a pressure-cooker affair as she rushed to get to the loo before it was too late.
So I asked Anna to describe her morning – from the time the alarm went off.
“Well … I should get up at 7.15 but I hit the snooze button a few times and then I’m up and in the shower at the very last minute. Unless my son’s beaten me to it. Which happens a a lot. He’s in there for ages … Drives me nuts!
Anyway … I have to take the dogs out. Just a quick walk round the block. Then I’ve got 3 packed-lunches to make …
… I eat a bowl of cornflakes at the counter. Grab a cup of coffee. Then I dry my hair, do my makeup and get my stuff together for work. I have to be out the house by 8.15. It’s only a short walk to the station but I’m always running late so I have to bolt down the road …”
By this point Anna was talking quickly and sounded tense. I felt stressed just listening to her. “If I miss the train it’s a wait for the next one and then I’d be late for work … I can’t be late for work …” And then it dawned on her.
“That’s the stress. Isn’t it?”
It certainly is.
Starting the day in a rush, with a cup of coffee and a wolfed-down bowl of sugary breakfast cereal can cause a release of adrenaline that’s high enough not only to have you running to the loo, but to have you spending the rest of your day feeling tense and under-pressure.
Exactly what my client was experiencing.
Why does this happen?
You would think that your body could tell the difference between different types of stress but the fact is that you only have one way to respond to stress.
So it doesn’t matter what the stress is – physical, emotional, environmental or dietary – your body will release the same hormones as it would if you were under threat from something.
We are just animals.
We might be less hairy, walk upright and spend too much time on Facebook, but internally … not a lot has changed since we were living in the wild.
Although we’re not under threat from other animals the way we would have been in the past we still have the same fight or flight response that’s there to keep us safe in the face of danger.
The difference now is that your fight or flight response, rather than being triggered by the threat of a wild animal, is triggered by your own thoughts, your diet, or your environment.
True, the response will be a lot less than if a woolly mammoth was coming at you but it is still the same response. The same hormones are released and your body will react in the same way.
It doesn’t matter what type of stress you’re under, when you’re under stress your body will do what it can to keep you alive and will prioritise its functions. One of the things that’s not important in a life or death situation is your digestion.
Any form of stress can have a negative impact on your digestion and in some cases cause the bowels to open.
It’s hard to understand why that might happen but let’s imagine that you’re a gazelle being hunted by a lion in the Serengeti.
Your chance of survival would depend on your fear response kicking in as quickly as possible. There’s no point in being relaxed about a lion coming towards you. You want to react. Fast!
You also want to be nimble and light on your feet. This could explain why, as you darted off as fast as your hooves could take you, your bowels might empty.
Being that little bit lighter could allow you to run a little bit faster and that split second could be the difference between your life … and lunch for the lion.
The stress response is our natural reaction to danger.
But the body functions best when it’s not in a state of stress, so after the danger has passed, calming hormones are released to bring the nervous system back in to balance.
The effects of a stressful event can be long-lasting as the mind and body will be on alert for some time so that if the scary animal comes back – you’ll be ready for it!
So what happens if you’re not experiencing a single major stressful event? After all you’re unlikely to be threatened by a wild animal on your way to work. What happens if the stresses you are under are small?
You might think that that won’t be such a big deal. If anything it’s worse. If you’re repeatedly stressed each day there’s no time for the calming hormones to be released.
Although you’re not running from a wild animal your mind and body may act as if you are, and be permanently in a state of stress – so you may never feel balanced and relaxed.
Start your day in a rush and you trigger the release of stress hormones. If you’re then exposed to one stress after another, the effect is cumulative, and you could feel on edge all day.
And take, for example, that morning latté – that you use to get you going after a bad night’s sleep. It could be the reason that you didn’t sleep well in the first place! (More on that later.)
So if you start your day in a stressed state – with all those stress hormones rushing round you body – you’re likely to be on edge for the rest of the day. You’ll be more reactive to the other stressors that you have to deal with. You’ll feel more under pressure. Be more anxious. Think more negatively. And your bowels are more likely to be irritable.
For Anna the stress started with the sound of the alarm every morning.
It’s not called the alarm for nothing!
Because Anna kept hitting the snooze button till the last possible minute she was in a state of stress from the moment she legged it out of bed. Obviously Anna wasn’t being chased by a lion or a wooly mammoth but she was feeling under pressure to get to work on time.
Anna was unwittingly fuelling the stress with caffeine and sugar. She was taking coffee and sugary cereal for ‘energy’ but this type of energy doesn’t come from nutrition. It comes from a stress response that simply added to the adrenaline pumping through her veins.
By the time Anna got to the train her adrenals were so fired up that her body thought she was under attack. She then had the added stress of worrying about whether she would need to go to the loo, and if she did, would she make it on time.
Anna was under so much stress that, inevitably her bowels wanted to empty. (I should add here that not everyone has this response. Some people become constipated when under stress.)
So before Anna did anything else I asked her to think of ways that she could start her day feeling more relaxed. When she realised the effect the stress was having on her body Anna was up for the challenge.
If you start your day in a rush – are there changes you could make to your morning routine?
Even small changes can make a big difference.
Here are some suggestions –
Give yourself an extra 15 minutes to get ready. This can make a huge difference to how you feel, not just in the morning but for the rest of the day.
Don’t hit the snooze button. Decide what time you need to get up at and set the alarm for that time.
Put your alarm away from the bed so that you have to get up to switch it off. The sound of the alarm should be the trigger that gets you out of bed – not rolling over to go back to sleep. I have mine in the kitchen so by the time I get to it I’m awake and ready to get going. Obviously don’t put it somewhere that you might not hear it.
Prepare as much as you can the night before. Lay out things for breakfast. Make packed lunches. Have your clothes ready.
The morning is not the time to be looking for things so have everything that you need to take to work ready to lift.
If you have kids this applies to them too.
Are there things that someone else could do? (When Anna explained to her husband how the stress of the morning was affecting her he offered to walk the dogs.)
Sit down to eat your breakfast. Eat slowly and mindfully. If you eat quickly your body will assume that you’re under some sort of threat and start releasing stress hormones.
Cut out caffeine and sugary breakfast cereals. They cause stress. PERIOD.
If you have a train or a bus to catch. Give yourself an extra 5 minutes to get to the station or the bus stop so you arrive feeling relaxed and in control – not in a mild state of anxiety.
If your usual morning routine is triggering a pattern of stress and bowel problems then putting this in to practice is well worth the effort.
You could start by making just one change at a time.
Once you’ve made that change deliberately a few times it will become second nature to you. Then you can change something else. This is what Anna did. It didn’t take long. Those days when she hit the ground running as soon as she got out of bed became a thing of the past. As did the Irritable Bowel Syndrome.