IBS and Stress Awareness Month

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Health Assured team

20 April 2023

The impact of stress can not only harm our psychological wellbeing, but our physical health too. A natural response to pressure, feelings of stress are usually triggered when we experience something new that is unexpected, or, we feel threatened or as though we have no control over a situation.

There are many psychological and physical factors that prevail as a result of stress, yet typically, our stress hormones return to normal once the event has passed. However, stress can trigger a lot of health conditions, and create long-term effects. As April is not only the month of Stress Awareness, but IBS Awareness too, we have created a small guide explaining how the two go hand in hand – and how you can prevent another stress-related IBS from flaring up.

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a digestive condition that is the most common gastrointestinal diagnosis, affecting around 20% of the world’s population. Common symptoms, such as stomach cramps, bloating, vomiting, constipation and diarrhoea. Although these symptoms tend to come and go, they can last for days, weeks or even months at a time- and are usually a lifelong problem.

How is IBS related to stress?

Although the exact cause of IBS is unknown, there can be lots of different triggers for individuals. For some, a family history of IBS may be the cause, whereas for others it can be specific food triggers, an over-sensitive immune system, or stress.

It is widely accepted that there is a strong link between mental health, stress and IBS flare ups, due to the gut-brain axis, leading to IBS sometimes being referred to as ‘irritable brain’. Around 44% of IBS sufferers also have anxiety, and 84% suffer from depression. Studies have shown that stress can release hormones which negatively impact the gut, causing an imbalance in gut bacteria.

How can IBS be treated in the context of stress?

Major life events, workplace pressure and just the stress of everyday life can cause an IBS flare up. Treating IBS holistically is advised, and most medical professionals will advise getting to the root cause of stress and anxiety to prevent flare ups. Failing this, a combination of counselling, CBT therapy and medication can be helpful. This way, individuals can learn how gut symptoms are related to stress response.

How can I manage stress in the workplace?

Managing stress is a task easier said than done. Outside of work, it's somewhat easier to take time out for yourself and find a way to de-stress and relax. However, in work, it can sometimes be tricky to switch off and integrate healthy working habits.

Studies have shown that IBS is one of the top reasons as to why employees have time off. It's crucial that as organisations, we take the time to understand the link between stress and IBS, so we can better manage flare ups and deal with stressful situations more effectively.

A few things you can do to manage stress in the workplace:

  • Track your stressors.

A great place to start is by tracking your mood, and writing down any situations which cause you stress. By doing this, you can have a better understanding of any patterns which occur in relation to your stress, and ultimately, IBS flare up. Think about things such as the setting, people involved, and your initial reaction to the situation.

  • Establish Boundaries.

Admittedly, one thing we could all be better at is establishing boundaries. In a digital world, it's easy to feel available 24 hours a day, therefore it can be hard to establish boundaries for yourself. Create work-life boundaries for yourself, and by doing this you can reduce the potential of having work-life conflicts causing further stress.

  • Take Time to Recharge and Communicate.

In work, it's easy to experience burnout in addition to the negative effects of chronic stress, and in this case, IBS flare ups. It’s important to prioritise both your mental and physical health, so that you don’t end up prolonging flare-ups and having to take prolonged absences from work. It can also be a good idea to speak to people at work who can help you manage stress, or symptoms of IBS. Explaining how the two-go together can be helpful when it comes to your performance at work, and managers can be aware of the serious effects chronic stress can have on your health.

  • Change your diet habits:

When we are feeling stressed, most of us will turn to dietary comforts to combat the feelings of anxiety. However, if stress is causing an IBS flare up, then it's important to take even better care of your physical health- and your diet is a great place to start. For example, when people are feeling stressed, they tend to reach for alcohol as a way to unwind from a chaotic day. However, if you are suffering from a flare, up, indulging in alcohol etc. can further your IBS symptoms, and often feed into poor mental health.

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