Being Told to Relax, aka the IBS Wake-up Call

Three letters. The MD gave me three little miserable letters to explain all the pain and suffering I’d been going through for years. IBS, as in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It seemed too little, too common, too simple. I don’t know what I was hoping for, some badass degenerative disease? “It’s only IBS,” she said. “The tests show no damage, no nutritional deficiency. This is good news. You just need to relax.” I was secretly hoping for something complex because it might have been treatable. Medication seemed easier than to relax. How the hell does one relax, I thought. You think I haven’t tried?!

IBS is one funny unpredictable condition. You’re fine and the next minute there’s so much pain you can’t stand up and walk. You feel bloated, sometimes nauseated, your digestion is funky, you’re not hungry for hours and then you suddenly want to eat an elephant. Let’s not even mention the episodes of diarrhea, interrupted by mysterious bouts of constipation.

And so the best advice the MD had was to relax! And avoid uncooked veggies, especially lettuce and red pepper. By then, I had already made many changes in my life. I had ditched all my jeans (too painfully tight) for dresses and yoga pants; I had abandoned dairy (oh, ice cream, where art thou?). I knew I could easily adapt my habits, but to relax?! That was a different ball game. I didn’t even know what it meant.

In my mind, relaxation was for retirement. It was completely incompatible with real life. There was no way I could even imagine myself as anything but stressed-out, over-active, over-zealous. I did every task as if my life depended on it. I was intense, and I did pride myself on getting things done, fast. Fortunately for me, the pain caused by IBS was so unbearable, I had to pause and revisit this assumption.

What I have since understood is that our digestive system is directly affected by our nervous system. Regular stress, when it goes unmanaged, will seriously impede our digestion from beginning to end. Stress affects the foods we choose, how we chew, how we breathe (which in turn influences our digestive organs’ work). It may divert the energy away from the intestines, slowing down digestion, or even cause food to move faster along the digestive system causing discomfort, and serious inconvenience.

What’s even more interesting is that your body knows about the stress reaction before you do. Before you can cognitively recognize that “I am under stress right now,” your body has initiated the response: dry mouth, tightening muscles, faster breathing. Although the mind is a serious player in the stress reaction, the body is the only way in.

That’s how I slowly learned to relax and make friends with stress, and successfully managed to eliminate my IBS symptoms. The first step into deconstructing stress is to take care of the body, breathe mindfully, and move the body in sync with the breath. The mind is completely clueless in this regard. Try talking yourself out of stress, and see if it works. The mind cannot lead this transformation, it can only follow.