Do you remember the term “fight or flight” response from your high school biology class? You may not have been paying close attention then, but if you are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your body is certainly demanding that you sit up and pay attention now.
The fight-or-flight reaction, otherwise known as the stress response, is the way that our body reacts to something that appears threatening. The stress response has been crucial for our survival as a species. Back when our ancestors were living in caves, if they came across a tiger, they certainly needed all of their bodily resources to either fight the tiger or run for their lives. In order for this to happen, the body reacts with increased respiration, heart rate, and tension in the muscles of our extremities. As the body turns its attention to mobilizing for fight or flight, the immune system is inhibited and there is a decrease in resources directed to the digestive system. In other words, if you were in a life-or-death situation, it really wouldn’t matter if your stomach digested that sandwich you just ate for lunch.
How Does Stress Response Relate to IBS?
The threats to our bodies are no longer as obvious as walking out of a cave and encountering a tiger. Now, there are lots of things that “stress us out” and our bodies react with the same strong biological changes. It would appear that the over-stimulation of the stress response due to the pressures of modern-day society has contributed to the development of stress-related illnesses, such as IBS. In other words, the system is no longer working as smoothly as it was in its original design. Researchers are still trying to untangle the biological mechanisms that are involved in the stress response and the relationship of these mechanisms to the digestive dysfunction seen in IBS.
Relaxation and the Stress Response
It is helpful to imagine the body’s stress response as a home security system. When a threat to security appears, an alarm goes off. In order for things to return to a state of peace and quiet, the alarm must be turned off. To turn the alarm off, a message must be sent to the brain that “all is well” and steps must be taken to override the physical changes that we have conscious control over.
Relaxation techniques are an excellent tool for turning off the stress response. The major elements are visualization, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. The use of relaxing visualization helps to distract the mind from its perception of threat. Deep breathing and muscle relaxation create a body experience that is the exact opposite of what is needed in times of stress. This relays a different message to the brain, a message of safety, which allows the brain to “stand down” and turn off the stress response.
No Magic Beans
Different techniques work for different people. It is a good idea to try a variety of relaxation exercises to determine which elements are the most effective in helping you to achieve a state of relaxation. For best results, find a comfortable chair and spend 10 minutes, twice a day, practicing these new skills. Do not practice in bed; you want to teach yourself to relax, not to fall asleep. However, practicing right before bed is an excellent idea as a relaxed body is going to sleep much better.
As you become skilled in these new techniques, you can begin to monitor your level of tension throughout your day. With practice, you can begin to apply your ability to relax out in the real world. You will find yourself amazed at your ability to actively reduce your stress level and quiet your body, all by yourself, without any magic beans. You will also be giving yourself some powerful tools for helping your digestive system to work more smoothly and reduce the likelihood of uncomfortable IBS symptoms.
Benson, H. The Relaxation Response (2000). New York: HarperTorch.
Monnikes, H., et.al. "Role of stress in functional gastrointestinal disorders. Evidence for stress-induced alterations in gastrointestinal motility and sensitivity." Digestive Diseases 2001 19:201-211.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.