Got stress? How an IBS sufferer found healing and you can, too
By Evon Stone Rubenstein
Some say that stress is at the root of all disease. What if you could change how you feel about stress?
We have always been told that stress is a bad thing. However, a number of scientific studies show that this may not be the case. This research confirms that the way you think about stress and other natural occurrences like aging affects how your body reacts to these events.
Yogic philosophy teaches that our consciousness affects our reality, and that our true state is health. How can we get back to that underlying well-being—even when faced with serious challenges?
The case of IBS
Stress can certainly be a major issue for those who suffer from a chronic condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). You respond to any threat, whether psychological or physical, by releasing adrenaline and cortisol hormones into your system—your body’s stress-response mechanisms are your brain’s 911 system. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels are supposed to return to normal, with your system resuming its regular activities. However, with a condition like IBS the system is in a constant state of stress.
Do you know someone with a chronic illness who’s always calm, even amid what you would perceive to be a stressful situation? There’s nothing wrong with their hormone balance—they just may have the key of a different attitude toward stress.
The studies I referred to about handling stress are decades old. These researchers have been following hundreds of people throughout their lives. What they discovered may surprise you: Stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. How you handle stress is the key.
Stress: A personal story
My long history with IBS became life threatening when my colon burst and I screamed, “Call 911!” When I woke up from surgery, I had lost a large portion of my colon and was the owner of a colostomy bag.
Up to this point, I had been a fairly positive person. However, this crisis really threw me for a loop. I had never known anyone who’d had a colostomy. I’d only heard horrible stories about exploding bags and carrying around your own poop. How would I be able to go back to work or teach yoga?
For a while, this situation caused me to sink into despair. Also, unrelated to this medical emergency, I lost my job and was forced to retire. Eventually, though, I was able to shift how I felt about my situation. I put on my big-girl panties (which have a nice little pouch for my colostomy bag) and started to figure out this next phase of my life and how to handle these new stressors.
Now my husband refers to me as Evon 2.0. The new 2.0 model is lucky to carry around her own toilet and no longer must spend hours in the bathroom. This completely changed my mindset about stress. I had been teaching yoga part-time for years and had recently been certified as a yoga therapist. In the back of my mind, I had always counted on my yoga therapy practice to fuel my retirement. Light-bulb moment: I was suddenly able to pursue yoga therapy full-time! Changing my mindset changed how I felt about what I could handle. It changed how I experienced physical and emotional stressors. It changed how I coped with life’s inevitable future challenges.
What is a mindset, anyway? And how can you shift it?
Mindsets are frameworks for the beliefs that influence your reality. Different mindsets yield different outcomes. Changing how you perceive stress and your ability to manage it can lead to improved health, well-being, and success. How can you think about stress differently?
This kind of exercise is yoga, too! The practice is about so much more than movement—it’s the science of and relationship to the Self. Journaling is a simple, sacred act that calls us to a place of exploration, curiosity, and revelation. Think of it as a form of meditation.
The health benefits of journaling for stress relief have been scientifically validated. Research shows that the practice can
- reduce digestive issues associated with IBS;
- decrease symptoms of asthma, arthritis, and other health conditions;
- improve cognitive functioning; and
- strengthen the immune system response.
Let me make it easy for you
Review the last year—or maybe just last month or yesterday—in your mind. What increased your anxiety? What made you sad? What made you mad?
Think about how you could or did gain from these experiences. What helped you to grow? In what ways were your experiences beneficial? If nothing seems positive, though, how could you change your mindset?
I find the best way to figure this out is to write it down—the old-fashioned way, with a pencil or a pen and paper. Make it your favorite writing instrument. (I like mechanical pencils, but this works with a keyboard, too.) Maybe get a special notebook or journal, and just start writing. The tactile practice of putting things down on paper or a screen engages both hemispheres of the brain and can help you to identify patterns in your life.
Find a place to write. Wherever you are most comfortable—a quiet corner in your home, the nearest coffee shop with your favorite drink, or even the library. Make it a special “me time” event, whether it is 5 minutes or a couple of hours. Allow this exploration to fit easily into your lifestyle.
After you have found your spot comes the first scary part: beginning. So make it easy. You are in your favorite place with your special writing tools or laptop. The next thing to do is to breathe. Yes, that’s right—that’s all you have to do to start. Write that down!
Here is my favorite stress-relieving breathing technique:
- Close your eyes or allow them to soften.
- Place your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your belly.
- Bring your attention to your breathing; simply observe without trying to change anything.
- Inhale and exhale through the nose as much as you’re able to.
- As you witness the breath, make a mental note on its quality (fast or slow, ragged or even, shallow or deep, etc.).
- Now start to even out the breath, making your inhales and exhales roughly the same length.
- After a few breaths, start to make your exhales longer than your inhales.
- Try counting to 2 on the inhale and counting to 4 on the exhale, with a pause between each part of the breath. (Inhale, pause, exhale, pause.)
- As you become more comfortable and relaxed, try to increase the count, making your exhales up to twice as long as your inhales. Try to reach a count of 4 for the inhale and 8 for the exhale, but only as it feels comfortable. If you feel yourself gasping for the inhale, you’ve gone too far; more is not better here.
Write down how the experience left you feeling. It doesn’t matter what you write—focusing your mind is the important part. Don’t make any rules or make it complicated in any way.
Congratulations! You’ve begun.
Evon Stone Rubenstein, C-IAYT, teaches students with digestive issues how to take responsibility for their own health with a simple yet effective system of breath and movement.
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