Healthy Living

The Stress and Anxiety Behind Crohn's and Colitis

The Stress and Anxiety Behind Crohn's and Colitis

It’s no news flash that stress and anxiety can play a major role in health. From raising blood pressure to having a negative impact on a person’s ability to sleep, anxiety and too much stress, especially the wrong kind of stress, can cause a host of different problems for your health. It’s maybe not surprising then to learn that stress and anxiety can also play a part in the management of Crohn’s disease. While certainly not the only factor that can cause a Crohn’s flare up, stress and anxiety can certainly affect the symptoms of Crohn’s.

Cause or affect?

Before we dive into some of the ways that stress and anxiety can affect Crohn’s disease, it’s important to note that no matter how stressed or worried you get, these mental and emotional conditions won’t cause Crohn’s disease. At this point physicians don’t completely understand why certain individuals develop Crohn’s disease. Now stress and anxiety can be the cause behind irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but again, it’s important to remember the difference between IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), even though their acronyms might be similar.

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Having too much stress in your life can present a lot of negative problems for your health. It may make it harder to focus, give you IBS, or contribute to a Crohn’s or IBD flare up. But one thing it won’t do is cause an individual to develop Crohn’s.

Understanding stress and stressors

As we dive into an exploration into how stress and anxiety can negatively affect someone with Crohn’s disease, we should take some time to understand a little bit better what stress is and how it impacts us on a regular basis.

At a basic level, stress is just how the body responds to any demanding situation. This might sound like a pretty broad category, and that’s because it is. You could be stressed out because you have a deadline coming up at work, your in-laws are coming into town, or you’re in a car accident. Stress can be caused by any number of situations, big or small. Although stress can have a lot of negative impacts on your health and daily life, it can’t be avoided. Just living regular life will undoubtedly cause stress. Even if you meditate an hour every morning before you go to work – which might not be a bad idea – you won’t be able to fend off stress completely. Get caught in a traffic jam? Stress. They run out of your favorite muffin at Starbucks? Stress. You get the point, stress is inevitable, and really, that’s not entirely bad.

The physical response we experience in a stressful situation is also often described as the fight or flight syndrome. Thanks to stress, we’re prepared to deal with difficult situations when they occur. In this respect stress can be a great motivator. Without the stress of a deadline, we might not get very much done. At its core, stress is just a response our body produces in a difficult or demanding situation, and it’s not bad. But an excess of stress, or handling stress in a bad way can be problematic.

Understanding anxiety and anxiety triggers

Anxiety is a little bit different than stress. Rather than just being described as a body’s response to a difficult or demanding situation, anxiety is a more particular emotion. Typically, anxiety can be best described as feelings of worry, panic, or fear. If you have a deadline at work, and you’re worried that your performance could jeopardize the status of your employment, then there’s a stress response as well as some anxiety mixed together in there.

Much like getting stressed, being anxious is a pretty common experience. Lots of people get anxious, and about lots of different things. In a lot of situations, anxiety may be such that it doesn’t have an enormous impact on your daily life. But, if you find yourself constantly anxious, and especially if you find yourself anxious about things that didn’t used to worry you, it may be a problem. If you find yourself feeling worried or fearful on a daily basis, especially about things that lots of other people consider fairly common, then you might want to look into learning methods to help you manage your anxiety, or seek help from a mental health professional.

Anxiety may not always be consistent in how it affects different people, or even in how it affects one person over a period of time. There may be periods in your life when you’re dealing with excessive anxiety about things that didn’t always bother you, and in a little while that anxiety could resolve completely. Regardless of how stress and anxiety affect you, it’s important to understand your own health so that you can manage these emotions and their side effects effectively.

The role of stress and anxiety in Crohn’s

Excess stress and anxiety can have a wide variety of effects on an individual’s health, and symptoms may present themselves differently in each person. Some common manifestations of stress and anxiety are difficulty sleeping, change in appetite, and muscle tension throughout the body. Any of these symptoms will in themselves have a negative impact on a person’s health, and they can have a cascading effect too. If you’re not getting enough sleep, then your immune system will suffer and you might be more susceptible to getting sick.

Certainly, these symptoms alone can cause a physiological environment that exacerbates Crohn’s, but too much stress and anxiety, especially if it goes unmanaged, can also have a direct impact on an individual already dealing with Crohn’s disease or IBD. According to a 2010 Canadian study, Crohn’s patients frequently report that stress and anxiety will increase the severity of existing Crohn’s symptoms or even cause a flare up in symptoms that might have otherwise been dormant. This study followed 552 patients over a year and found that they were more likely to suffer from Crohn’s symptoms when they were going through periods of excess stress and anxiety.

Managing stress with Crohn’s

It’s pretty clear that stress and anxiety can have a negative impact on health, and especially on patients already suffering from Crohn’s disease, both directly and indirectly. There are lots of reasons to be wary of stress and anxiety, but like we’ve discussed already, it just can’t be avoided completely. Although no one can rid their lives of stress and anxiety completely, you can learn effective ways to manage it.

The basic principle you need to keep in mind when learning to manage your stress and anxiety is to slow down. Stress and anxiety are typically our bodies’ call to action. Fight or flight helps us to speed up and get things done. And that’s good, at least for a little while. But once a stressful situation is over, or even if it isn’t completely, you also need to take time to slow back down.

Practicing deep, belly breathing is one way to help your body slow down. Maybe start by setting a timer for a specific period of time, let’s say 20 minutes, then sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, and just pay attention to your breathing. Try to clear your mind of all the thoughts that pop up and just focus on your breathing.

Exercise, especially activities like yoga or tai chi that emphasize mindfulness are other great ways to manage stress and anxiety. Reading, meditating, or even just going on a calm walk are other ways to help you manage stress.

The bottom line

There are tons of ways to manage stress effectively, and you have to find the one that works for you. What’s important is that you don’t let your stress and anxiety go unchecked. While stress and anxiety play an important role in how we process information and deal with the tasks of everyday life, we can’t spend all of our time coasting on a stress high. Excessive stress and anxiety will manifest in lots of different negative ways. If you’re already suffering from Crohn’s or IBD, then unmanaged stress and anxiety will very likely exacerbate or even cause a flare up in symptoms.