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Coping With A Bowel Condition

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Coping with a bowel condition can be difficult due to both the mental and physical strains it can put on your body. Learn some coping techniques to deal with the symptoms here.

Ways To Cope With Your GI COndition

Continence conditions can be life limiting, and that’s never more true than where bowel conditions are concerned. But there are strategies to manage your symptoms and reclaim the freedom you used to experience. Remember – millions of people are living with the same issues that you are, and the coping techniques they’ve learned can make a meaningful difference for you, too.

First, personalize your approach

Don’t forget that you are unique – what you experience and how you manage can vary significantly based on the particular condition you have and its severity. What works for one person may not work for the next, so don’t get discouraged if some of these approaches aren’t successful. 

The next thing to do is to recognize that for many patients, there are both mental and physical components to the way their disorders affect them and how they manage their conditions. The following sections offer details about specific programs that can help you address your issues with both mind and body.

Reduce Your Stress For Better Bowel Health

There is a powerful connection between your brain and your bowel, and the more you can do to address this connection, the more likely you will be to gain a degree of control over your symptoms. 

Did you know that just thinking about food can start your stomach releasing juices, even if you haven’t eaten a thing? Other feelings like anger, sadness, anxiety and depression can also produce various types of physical reactions in your gut. And it’s a two-way street: If you have issues with your digestion, it can cause you to feel those same emotions. 

The Science Behind The Brain/Gut Connection

The biology behind this can help us better understand the nature of this connection and what we can do about it. Our gut is a key producer of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which we count on to modulate things like our mood and memory, so it should be no surprise that something that upsets us emotionally can upset us physically, and vice versa. 

Stress can also cause our body to release substances that produce inflammation – including inflammation in the GI tract – and it can actually influence how quickly or slowly our digestive muscles contract. Slower motion can lead to constipation and abdominal pain, while faster activity can lead to diarrhea. 

The big takeaway is that if you’re trying to manage bowel symptoms, it’s important to think about your emotional state, the amount of stress you’re under and other mental factors. Read through the list below to find specific techniques to help you cope with the emotional effects of a bowel condition.

Techniques To Manage The Stress Of A Bowel Condition

The Relaxation Response 

Dr. Herbert Benson is the founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. In the 60s and 70s, his work helped shape today’s understanding that relaxation techniques can be a real help to those living with stress-related disorders. He called this the “Relaxation Response”, based on the idea that a relaxed state is the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” response which is known to cause high levels of stress. 

When we enter a state of deep relaxation, we engage the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the part of our nervous system that’s responsible for things like sexual arousal, urination, digestion and bowel movements.

The techniques he championed have been examined across a wide range of disease states, including bowel disorders. In fact, a number of studies have found that the practice of meditation or mindfulness is especially useful for those suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. One analysis looked at more than 600 articles and concluded that mindfulness can meaningfully improve quality of life and reduce pain for IBS patients. 

These techniques can be simple to learn, and there’s enough variety that there’s sure to be something to fit almost anyone’s taste. Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and acupressure are all useful ways to reduce stress, and potentially reduce symptoms of a bowel condition.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This is a simple, do-it-yourself technique where you focus on deep muscle relaxation by contracting isolated muscle groups one at a time, starting from your lower body and working your way up to your head. The goal is to use these contractions to switch your body and your mind to a more relaxed, peaceful state. Here’s how it works: Lie on your back with your eyes closed, in an environment without any distractions. Take a few deep breaths into your belly to put you into the mood to relax and begin the process of slowing down your body.

    1. Firmly contract the muscles in your lower body, starting with the toes, then the feet, followed by the calves, then the thighs and finally your butt. 
    2. As you tighten each set of muscles, hold them for five seconds, visualizing the muscle and focusing on the tension you’re creating.  
    3. Before you move to the next set of muscles, exhale slowly and relax the previous group for five to 10 seconds.
    4. Repeat the same process for the muscles in your torso and upper body, in this order: Stomach/abdomen, fingers, hands, arms and shoulders.
    5. Finally, do the same tension exercises for your neck, jaw and forehead.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Also known as CBT, this is a form of talk therapy that is focused on helping you identify thoughts, attitudes and related behaviors that may be creating issues for you and changing them for the better. It’s not the sort of therapy that’s typically portrayed in the movies, where you lie on a couch and open up about anything and everything that comes to mind. Instead, CBT is very results-oriented, with a goal of helping you identify specific strategies to generate the outcomes you’re looking for. When it comes to digestive disorders, the thought is that by developing approaches to manage anxiety, you can minimize those biological triggers that aggravate your condition. 

Diet & Nutrition Considerations

When you have a bowel disorder, your diet and nutrition plays a major role in not only your symptoms, but in your overall health. While not a cause for most GI disorders, some foods you eat can trigger your symptoms, while others can calm them. Not only that, certain conditions can impact your body’s ability to absorb food, and some people on restricted diets may not be getting the nutrients their body needs. 

It’s not always easy to determine what foods you should eat, and the same diet that may work for one person may not work for another. Additionally, different conditions may mean that you should eat or avoid different foods. What might be advised for one person experiencing chronic constipation may be avoided for someone experiencing a flareup from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. You should work with your doctor and a dietitian to determine a food plan that works well for you. However, here are some general tips that may help:

Keep a Diary

As we mentioned above, everyone is different and there may be certain foods that seem to always cause you issues. Keep a food journal to track what you eat and drink, and then note how that seems to affect your condition. Take note if you experience any symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, fecal incontience, or constipation. Then talk with your doctor/dietition about your findings.

Eat regularly and consistently. 

 Some conditions may call for eating smaller meals throughout the day (like IBS) to avoid taxing your digestive system too much, whereas others (like constipation) may call for fewer, larger meals to encourage bowel movements. The most important thing is to stick to a routine and follow it pretty consistently. This can help promote regular digestion.

Eat and drink slowly.

It’s common these days to scarf our lunch in front of our computers, or wolf down dinner while watching our favorite Netflix shows. But being mindful of what and how you eat, and eating slowly can help you not only appreciate your meal, but may also help you avoid gas and bloating, which can happen when we eat too quickly. Eating slowly can also help prevent overeating, since it allows you to better realize when you’re full.

Drink plenty of water.

Staying hydrated is critical no matter what type of bowel disorder you have so its important to drink plenty of it throughout the day. Water helps you digest your food by breakig it down so that the nutrients can be more easily absorbed. It also helps you to avoid constipation, since extra water in your stoll allows it to pass more smoothly. You may need to adjust your water intake according to the food plan you’re on too. Some food plans that recommend consuming extra fiber may call for extra water too to help move the bulked up stools along the digestive tract.

Stock up on the foods that you know you can tolerate.

There’s nothing worse than being hungry and finding that the only food in the house are foods that you know will cause you issues. Be prepared by taking one or two days a week to meal plan with foods that you know won’t trigger your symptoms.

Increase Your Physical Activity

Not only is exercise a great way to keep your body healthy and in shape, it’s also a great stress reducer, which, as we learned above, can help ease or even prevent symptoms of some bowel conditions. Regular exercise can also help you sleep better, encourage more regular bowel movements, and even encourage you do adopt other healthy habits. It’s a great activity to help you cope with a GI condition.

There are lots of ways to increase your physical activity, and they don’t have to be intense to have an impact. Things like walking, biking, light jogging, swimming, aerobics, weight-lifting  or yoga are all great exercises to try. Make it more fun by incorporating friends or family. This not only makes it more of a social event, but it helps to ensure you’ll stick with your workout plan if you know someone else is counting on you to join them. (Get our guide on how to start a walking group here!)

In addition to physical activity, you may also want to consider things like bowel retraining, or biofeedback.  

Bowel retraining can be done right at home and involves training yourself to have more regular bowel movements.

Biofeedback is typically done in a doctor’s office and is used to help you identify and strengthen your pelvic floor muscles to help prevent leaks if that’s something you experience.

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