As midterms wrap up this week, I feel that it is an opportune time to discuss stress management and why it is absolutely essential to your gut health. Studying for 4 exams in 2 weeks, plus working, blogging, exercising, and a little bit of wedding planning sprinkled into the mix, I realize my body is not as invincible as it was in undergrad. I remember being able to study until the middle of the night, sleep for 2 hours, and go take an exam. Then run a couple of on-campus organizations on top of that. Was I Wonder Woman?! I mean, how in the world could I do all of that? These days, I still fight the urge to commit to too much and desire to do everything. However, I know that I struggle to get everything done while balancing my lower energy level so I try to reign it in as much as I can. I’ve only been out of school for 6 years, but it feels like a lifetime and a chronic disease ago. So, what do I do when I feel like I’m in over my head and need to keep my stress in check?
WHY IS STRESS MANAGEMENT IMPORTANT?
The brain and gut are tightly connected and the gut feels all of the emotions that your brain sends it, for better or for worse. When we are stressed, this raises our blood pressure and heart rate as a defense mechanism, but is not meant to stay that way. When you are perpetually stress and your heart rate and blood pressure continue to stay higher than normal, it can be detrimental to your gut and overall health.
There is such a thing called the “gut-brain axis”, where the sympathetic (used when body is in fight-or-flight mode) and parasympathetic (used once the danger has passed) nervous systems communicate with a lesser known part of the autonomic nervous system called the enteric nervous system. This system receives signals to induce digestion when food enters the digestive tract and signals for the lining of the GI tract for the passing of the food. The enteric nervous system uses neurotransmitters to communicate directly with the central nervous system, where our body first feels the stress. This direct connection between brain and gut is why we feel butterflies when we are nervous or why we feel anxiety when our digestion is out of whack.
Now, how do we know when stress is beginning to affect our health? Here are a few ways to tell.
Physical Effects of Stress:
- Flare up of chronic condition/disease
- Digestive issues
- Trouble sleeping
- Stiff muscles
- Weight loss or gain
- Difficulty focusing on tasks
- Inability to relax
- Change in behavior
- Difficulty with memory
- Teeth grinding
For me, I know that stress has a direct link to my Ulcerative Colitis flare ups and, because of this, I diligently try to minimize the effects of stress on my body to avoid any more hospitalizations. So, what do I do when I feel like I’m in over my head and need to keep my stress in check?
HOW DO I REDUCE STRESS IN MY LIFE?
Regardless of your stage in life, there are always going to be daily stressors and there is not much we can do about that. What we can do is manage how we handle these stressors and their effect on our gut. Here are a few practices that I have found helpful in my own life:
- Learn the word “No” - This has been such a lifesaver for me, yet difficult with my case of FOMO (fear of missing out). Don’t always feel the need to say yes- saying no can minimize your stress more than anything else. In the words of Megan Trainor - “I to the I to the no no no…”
- Deep breathing - When you are feeling the stress rise, take a moment to take a few deep, belly breaths and release slowly. This slows your heart rate and provides extra oxygen to the body.
- Smile - Fake it ‘til you make it, and eventually your brain will actually begin to feel happy.
- Exercise regularly - Exercising can greatly alleviate the feeling of stress.
- Find what recharges you - Is it time with friends? Going to a coffee shop to read? Going for a run?
- Quiet time - Having a cup of tea, reading, or just sitting in silence can naturally calm your mind and your body. Make sure you eliminate all screens from this time to allow your body to fully relax.
- Find laughter in your day
- Practice gratitude - Every morning and every evening, think of 5 things you are thankful for. Writing this down everyday creates a shift in mindset from “woe is me” to being thankful.
- Wishing happiness - Each day, either at work or in the car or when you are out walking, think of 3 people you wish for happiness. Really visualize this person being happy and what that might look like. Truly wish that for them. Again, a shift in mindset away from thinking internally and more toward thinking externally of others.