Posted on 18 Dec 2020
My IBD Care hosted a webinar for users in recognition of Stress Awareness Week.
We were very lucky to be joined by Dr. Rabia Lalani, gastroenterologist, clinical researcher and yoga teacher who led a session for over 80 of our users. Her work focuses on bringing together lifestyle and mainstream medicine. In this webinar, she explored the gut-brain connection, stress as a whole-body experience and breathing as a tool to help manage symptoms.
- How does stress actually impact my IBD symptoms?
- What role does my breathing play in this relationship?
- Is breathing a tool to influence my symptoms?
Misconceptions About Stress
Stress Awareness Week aims to highlight the importance of managing stress in our day to day lives, now more than ever. For those with Crohn’s and colitis, managing stress, anxiety and mental health problems can help to keep flare-ups at bay. If the effects of stress can play out in the entire body, as seen in people with IBD, why is stress often represented as being “all in the head”? A Google search for stress brings up many images of people holding their heads, looking down or frustrated, or people with thought bubbles spilling out of their heads. These images do not represent the varied ways that stress can present itself in the body. Stress can be defined as a mismatch between perceived threat/demand and the perceived ability to cope, and while stress helps react quickly in dangerous circumstances, chronic stress can impact almost every organ in the body.
Stress as a Whole Body Experience
Although stress is perceived in the brain, chronic stress can affect almost every organ in your body. The brain is connected to the rest of the body via the nervous system and Dr. Rabia describes the nervous system as a telephone line along which signals can pass both from the brain to the body and vice versa. The nervous system is a partner in the stress response. Under stressful conditions, the heart beats faster than normal, blood pressure rises, breathing becomes faster and more shallow. Importantly, the gut, your “second brain”, also responds to stress. There is bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain.
In summary, perception of stress occurs in the brain, however, stress is a whole-body response and affects organs throughout the body.
How to use Breathing as a Tool to Manage Stress
To help manage stress, Dr Rabia suggests a tool that is readily available and incredibly powerful: breathing. The webinar ended with Dr Rabia guiding our attendees through a 10-minute breathing exercise which provided everyone with the opportunity to relax including our very own team members, Kishan and Rachel. Breathing exercises are incredible relaxation tools: free, easy to learn, no special equipment needed and you can do them whenever you want.
To help explain how breathing can help manage stress, Dr Rabia explained the structure of the nervous system. During a stressful event, the brain processes these signals and communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system regulates “automatic” responses that are not under our conscious control (involuntary responses). The autonomic system is further divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” response and the parasympathetic system is involved with the “rest and digest” response. To apply brakes on the stress response, increase the stimulation of the parasympathetic system to favour “rest and digest” over the “fight or flight” response. The vagus nerve controls these brakes. The vagus nerve,’ vagus’ meaning ‘wandering’ in Latin, connects the brain to many organs including the lungs, heart and gut.
Slow deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which alters heart rate and results in the body relaxing to counter the stress response. Dr Rabia focused on the powers of breathing to help manage symptoms. However, the key is to start building up a reserve (or as she called it ‘a piggy bank’) of tools. When you have a flare-up of symptoms, these tools will support you. Managing stress can actually help reduce flare-ups for those living with IBD. That’s why we have incorporated daily stress monitoring and wellbeing courses into the My IBD Care app to help our users better self-manage their stress and condition.
Interested in Learning More About the Gut?
Dr. Rabia recommended “Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ” book by Guila Enders. You can follow Dr Rabia on Instagram at @doctor_rabia for guided breathwork, yoga and much more.
You can also access My IBD Care’s mindful breathing audio here. Find many more relaxation and breathing techniques in our Lifestyle and Wellbeing Courses within the app. To download the My IBD Care app, visit the App and Google Play store and join our community.