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How to minimise the mental effects of IBS

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can mean a host of tricky symptoms.

These can include diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal cramps, gas and bloating, but it’s not just the physical effects that can take a toll.

The common digestive condition can have a psychological impact, too, and there’s significant overlap with things such as stress, anxiety and depression.

“The emotional impact of any digestion issue is huge, and it’s no surprise,” says Jenna Farmer, who runs A Balanced Belly, dedicated to all things gut health and living with digestive disorders.

“It makes things we take for granted – like travel, socialising and working – that bit more difficult as we worry about finding foods we can eat from a menu, managing symptoms when out and about and finding the nearest loo.”

Karen Chambers, a holistic nutritional therapist and founder of Fierce Wellbeing, adds: “Quite often, when clients with IBS first come to see me, it’s clear they develop anxiety over the condition.

“They have daily concerns of where toilets are situated, can they gain quick access, feeling on edge, worried about eating away from home. That is just some of their many concerns.”

IBS can vary in severity, and often people find their symptoms “flare up” at certain times and settle down at others.

The exact causes aren’t entirely clear, although some find specific foods trigger symptoms, or an underlying gut infection may be involved.

Diet and lifestyle changes can play a vital role in managing IBS, and medications may help soothe symptoms, but there’s lots you can do yourself, too.

Flare-ups can disrupt your day-to-day life and confidence. It’s understandable this can cause worry and frustration – especially when it feels like it’s all out of your control.

Shifting your focus to think about what you can do to help yourself can make a big difference to mental wellbeing.

“Although we’re getting better at talking about gut health, there’s still a taboo and it can feel awkward and embarrassing,” says Farmer, who has the inflammatory bowel disorder Crohn’s, so knows what it’s like to live with digestive health issues.

“Understanding the link between gut health and mental health can be a positive thing, as it can help you work towards strategies to help manage things.”

You might not be able to “switch off” IBS completely, but many find ways of minimising flare-ups.

“Even a 20% reduction in symptoms can help people feel more at ease and in control, and not a slave to IBS,” says Chambers.

“I find that once someone gains an understanding of what triggers their symptoms and what steps they should take, they feel empowered.”

She notes that what works for one may not work for another, so find out what’s going to work best for you as an individual.

Keeping a diary – tracking everything you eat and drink, alongside what you were doing (eating at a table/desk/while on the move), where you are in your menstrual cycle for women, whether you felt stressed or relaxed, etc – can help identify patterns.

Remember it’s important not to make any big changes to your diet without consulting an expert, to ensure you’re still getting a balanced diet that’s meeting your nutritional needs.

“Finding a support network can be really important. Sometimes knowing you are not the only one experiencing this can alleviate anxiety considerably,” says Farmer.

“Many of us feel like we are the only one that ever gets bloating, diarrhoea or stomach discomfort, but it is so much more common than you think.

“This is where social media has its advantages, as you can find and chat to people like you.”

Similarly, while it’s easy for flare-ups to disrupt your social life – when not on lockdown – keeping up connections and socialising can be vital for mental wellbeing.

This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to socialise when you don’t feel up to it, but if you’re worried about flare-ups, telling your friends could help take the pressure off.

Make a pact with yourself to prioritise your own wellbeing and relaxation, and simply to be kind to yourself.

We all need to manage our stress levels – life will get in the way sometimes, but it’s about creating habits and doing what we can, when we can.

Regular exercise and keeping fit is brilliant for reducing stress, as well as boosting health top to toe and supporting gut health. And don’t beat yourself up if flare-ups are getting you down.

“When we’re unwell, our brain tries to find solutions and figure out what could have caused it,” says Farmer.

“Accept flare-ups for what they are, don’t beat yourself up thinking you’ve done something wrong.

“It’s out of your control so be kind to yourself – bear in mind it won’t last forever.”