The alarm didn’t go off; it’s raining and traffic is miserable; coffee gets spilled on a clean, white shirt. All of these scenarios are examples of things that can cause stress. Added together, anxiety and stress can cause a very upset stomach. On any given day, we are faced with getting somewhere on time, relying on someone else to get something done for us, or losing our patience in line at the pharmacy while a three-year-old screams in the background. Our world’s manufactured stress is quite different from the stress of our ancestors trying not to be eaten by the dinner they are hunting. However, our primal responses to stress have remained relatively the same over time, and they affect our entire bodies.
The gastrointestinal tract is extremely sensitive to emotion, and the brain-gut relationship is quite intimate. Each one of our emotions – anger, sadness, excitement, and stress – can set off reactions in our stomach, ranging from discomfort to diarrhea. Over 100 million nerve cells, which are part of an intricate system called the enteric nervous system, line the gastrointestinal tract. In the simplest terms, these nerves affect blood flow and acidic secretions which aid in digestion.
These nerves also signal our brain when we feel hungry, full, or when we may have eaten something that doesn’t agree with us. Conversely, our gut knows immediately when we feel sad, scared, or stressed. Stress can affect movement of the gastrointestinal tract, create inflammation, and lower the immune system, making you more open to infection. Additionally, stress can cause GI symptoms, and GI symptoms can, in turn, cause stress. Thus, part of healing our gastrointestinal issues is understanding and acknowledging the part stress plays on our gastrointestinal health.
Having an awareness of our emotions and taking time out to relieve stress are important components in managing our health and alleviating some of our gastrointestinal discomfort. The following strategies can really help to calm the nerves and help us to relax.
Being anxious and stressed out actually tightens the muscles that help us breathe. Taking a moment to focus and consciously breathe slowly can automatically reduce heart rate and reduce stress.
Get Up and Get Moving
Any type of movement is good for stress reduction. Whether we choose to stretch at our desks or go on a three-mile-trail run, exercise has stress-reducing benefits. Exercise releases endorphins, the “feel good” hormone, and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. Additionally, moving has mind-clearing benefits by shifting thoughts away from what is distressing us and promoting a more relaxed outlook. Exercise improves mood, boosts our immune systems, and helps us to sleep better, which all aid in combating stress.
Getting fresh air and standing in the sunshine can really help change a mood. Studies show that being in nature reduces stress and uplifts mood. The smell of fresh air, trees, flowers, or fresh-cut grass increases relaxation and can help us feel calmer and happier.
Talk It Out
Stress can really take its toll and holding it in or ignoring the issue only makes it worse. Although working with a professional therapist is ideal, talking things through with a friend is also beneficial.
Writing helps to organize thoughts and aids in problem-solving. It also helps with dealing with stressors we may not be ready to share with others. Mapping out our emotions without censoring words or feelings, a time constraint, spelling or grammar concerns, rules, boundaries, or limitations can really help release stored anger and resentment. When we take the time to write about our emotions, we may feel good enough to communicate our issue from a place of clarity or let it go completely.
We need to take a moment and close our eyes – visualizing a place we love, a fond memory, or a time when we felt calm – and then breathe and relax in that space. Allowing ourselves to let go of everything for a few moments provides feelings of happiness, joy, and peace. Meditation is free, easy, and can be done anywhere. The emotional benefits include increasing patience, reducing stress, creating awareness of our immediate environment, figuring out what may be causing us distress, and creating a renewed perspective on how to manage stress triggers.
Take a Nap
Sleep helps us deal with stress. Dreams help us release the emotions of the day as well as those of past events. During the dream state, stress hormones are reduced. So, we take a nap, and forget about what’s bothering us.
Adopt a Pet
Having an animal friend is truly beneficial for our emotional well-being. Studies show that having a pet, whether it be a dog, cat, fish, or hamster combats loneliness and reduces stress. Time with a pet can lower blood pressure, ease social anxiety, and increase self-esteem.
As they say, laughter is the best medicine. The act of laughing actually has both short and long term benefits. In the short term, laughter can release tension and relieve our stress response. In the long term, laughter boosts our immune system, improves overall mood, and increases happiness. Find a favorite funny movie, see a comedy show, or read some epic texting autocorrect fails – all making us feel more relaxed and carefree.
Our gut is in tune with everything we see, feel, understand, and encounter. Paying attention to our emotional health and stress triggers can really help alleviate some of our stomach discomfort. However, stress reduction is not always the only solution. Be sure to work with a healthcare professional, and use stress reduction in combination with any advice or recommendations from a doctor.
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