In the years I’ve lived with IC, I’ve gotten good at knowing my trigger foods and activities. I can avoid them and even listen to my body when I need to take it easy. However, controlling stress- and anxiety-induced flares is much more challenging. In the midst of everyday life and the demands placed on me as a mom, wife, employee and so on, stress and anxiety come into play on a regular basis. And don’t even get me started on anxiety caused by current events in the world.
We’ve all got a lot to be stressed and anxious about. As a result, we end up activating our fight-or-flight response without good reason. Our inflammation and symptoms get worse. And that causes more stress and anxiety. What if this is the flare that never ends? How am I going to manage all of my responsibilities when I can barely leave the bathroom? Why did a flare have to happen right now? Who is going to take care of this issue if I can’t? On and on the stress and anxiety go and the vicious cycle continues round and round.
But the cycle can be broken. Just like with everything else, we can learn to better manage our stress and anxiety when it starts spiraling out of control. If we know that stress and anxiety can trigger the fight-or-flight response, then we need to learn how to trigger the relaxation response. Helping our minds and bodies know that danger isn’t imminent and learn to relax can end up improving our pain as well. Plus, we end up happier in the long run!
Simply put, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, research has shown adult minds wander 47% of the time. Being mindful and present takes practice, but thousands of studies have shown mindfulness is good for decreasing stress. Practicing mindfulness can literally change your brain to be more inclined toward happiness. The key is to be mindful of yourself with a dose of kindness and positivity.(1) Mindfulness is being aware of what’s happening without judgement or trying to fix anything.
Mindfulness overlaps with many of the other relaxation tips that follow. Purposefully and kindly pay attention to what you are doing each moment as you work to relax your body and ease your stress. (For more, check out these five ways to incorporate mindfulness into daily life.)
Meditate or pray.
Meditation and prayer both work to calm your body and mind. To get started with meditation and help clear your mind, try repeating a mantra in your mind as you breathe slowly and deeply. If you are focusing on the present, then you stop fretting over something that happened in the past or could happen in the future.(2) To practice mindful meditation, sit for 10 to 30 minutes and focus only on your breathing. The goal is to clear your mind. You may need to start with shorter times and gradually increase. If your mind wanders, gently and kindly bring it back into focus on your breathing.(3)
For a faith-based approach to meditation, you can develop a mantra that relates to your faith. For example, you might breathe in “trust” and breathe out “God.” You can pick from a favorite Bible verse or something that helps you to focus on God rather than yourself. Another way to incorporate your faith into meditation is by taking a 5-minute Bible meditation break when you are feeling anxious. Read a verse or two, then meditate on it. What stands out to you? How are you feeling God’s presence? And then move forward into prayer to thank God and lift up yourself and/or loved ones as well.(4)
Do breathing exercises.
When our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode, our breathing becomes faster. Intentionally taking longer breaths helps calm our anxiety and physical response to stress. First, understand that a deep breath is a belly breath, meaning your belly should push out as you breath in — not your chest. If you’ve played a wind instrument this may come more naturally to you. Otherwise, it may take some practice to take true deep breaths.
You can take those deep breaths in a variety of ways. Start by simply becoming aware of your breathing. This not only helps you identify whether you are breathing deeply and slowly but it also helps you shift your focus off of stress. Another choice is to visualize your body as a balloon. As you breathe in, you are filling the balloon in your stomach. As you breathe out, you are deflating it. Breathing in and out stress is an option as well. Imagine you are breathing in your stress and then blowing it out.(5)
To practice mindful breathing, pick a quiet position and have a seat. Focus on your breathing then inhale deeply for three seconds and exhale slowly for three seconds. Use your breath as an anchor so that when your thoughts wander, you return to the three-second breathing. Continue this for three minutes.(3)
Consider progressive muscle relaxation.
Tense muscles are another symptom of anxiety and stress. Progressive muscle relaxation is a great way to help your body remember to relax those muscles. This works at bedtime to help with falling asleep, but it also works during the day to help you focus on your body and relax it. You can start from the feet and work up or start with whatever muscles are tense. Tense one muscle at a time for five seconds and then relax it. Let the muscle relax for 10 seconds before moving onto the next one.(6)
Conduct a body scan.
A bit similar to progressive muscle relaxation, a body scan helps you focus on relaxing your body. You get into a comfortable position either seated or lying down, close your eyes and focus on your body from your feet up. Pay attention to what you are feeling in each region. How does the floor feel on your feet? Do you feel the pressure of the chair on the back of your legs? Again, this exercise will bring you into the moment and help you pay attention to yourself and calming down. To stay focused and learn how to do a body scan, try this simple three-minute body scan guided meditation.(7)
Imagine you’re somewhere else.
It may sound a bit trite, but sometimes in the middle of stress and anxiety, taking a break to imagine you’re in a happier place can help you settle down. You can do this formally with guided imagery where someone walks you through picturing your happy place — what you would feel, see, smell and taste. Or you can do this on your own. Close your eyes and imagine yourself somewhere that makes you happy. Maybe it’s somewhere you’ve been on vacation, maybe it’s your backyard or maybe it’s a shopping mall! Wherever it is, going inside your brain and imagining yourself in your happy place can help ease your anxiety in the moment.(2)
Whether using essential oils, a candle or lotion, certain scents can help reduce your anxiety and stress. Scents that are the most calming include lavender, rose, sandalwood, orange, frankincense, orange blossom, bergamot, chamomile and geranium.(8)
Keep a journal.
Writing about our stress and anxiety can give us perspective and help us release it. Keeping a journal of the things you are struggling with can help with your anxiety, but so can keeping a gratitude journal where you list the things you are thankful each day. You could certainly do both. In this age of modern technology, you can find apps to use on your phone so you don’t have to keep up with a paper journal if you’d rather not.(8)
Find a peaceful spot.
When you are struggling with anxiety, finding somewhere peaceful to have a break can be very calming. Sights and sounds are often triggers for or can intensify panic attacks, so getting away from them is helpful. If you’re in a busy room, leave the room or lean against a wall and close your eyes.(6) Go sit in your car alone. Take extra time during a bathroom break to just hang out in the bathroom and regroup. Basically anywhere you can go to get away from an overwhelming situation will allow you to have a bit of a mental break that will then make it easier for you to use your other coping strategies, calm your anxiety and move forward.
A couple of studies have shown that chewing gum an help lower stress or provide stress relief. It’s a pretty quick thing to try without much risk. The theory is that chewing gum produces brain waves similar to those our brains produce when we are relaxed. It also increases the blood flow to the brain, so try a stick of gum the next time you are overwhelmed.(8)
Move your body.
Exercise has been shown to improve mental health, including improving stress and anxiety. Low impact exercises, such as walking and yoga, are usually fine for ICers and are also some of the most recommended types of exercise for stress as well.
Even a short walk can help reduce stress. If you are walking outside, take time to notice the scenery. Pay attention to the blue sky, the green grass, the white snow or whatever you are seeing. Walking inside can also be beneficial. Sometimes just the change in moving your body can help you alleviate stress and anxiety.
Regular yoga (not hot yoga or intense yoga) is usually IC friendly and can help alleviate both mental stress as well as physical symptoms of stress, such as tight muscles. In fact, many pelvic floor physical therapy exercises include yoga positions.
Become aware of your surroundings.
When your anxiety and stress are beginning to overwhelm you and spiral out of control, one option to help stop the overwhelm is to be aware of what is around you. You can focus on one object only and pay attention to everything about it. Or you can play your own version of “I Spy” and look for every item in the room that is a certain color or whatever other category you come up with.
Another option is the 5-4-3-2-1 method which helps you be grounded in and more mindful of your current surroundings rather than your anxiety and stress. For this method, you slowly and thoroughly complete the following steps:
- Look at five different objects around you.
- Listen for four different sounds.
- Touch three objects.
- Notice and identify two smells.
- Name one thing you can taste.
For each step, really stop and pay attention closely taking note of things you’d probably not notice otherwise.(6)
Spend time with loved ones.
Whether family, friends or both, spending time with those you love certainly helps your stress and anxiety levels. Even better is getting a hug from a loved one. Physically touching someone (like in a hug) releases oxytocin, which is a hormone that reduces stress levels, lowers blood pressure and can help you feel more relaxed. Cuddling with a loved one — including a pet — releases oxytocin, so get some snuggles in when you are anxious.(2)
Another bonus to spending time with loved ones is that often includes laughter, which truly is the best medicine in regards to helping anxiety and stress. Laughter works a lot like physical touch and also alleviates muscle tension.(8) Watch a funny television show or movie alone or with your loved ones. Hang out with people who make you laugh. Find a way to make laughter a regular part of your life.
If you are artistic, this may come more naturally for you, but creating artwork decreases anxiety levels. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be your own masterpiece. Research has shown that coloring can have an almost meditative effect, so pick up a coloring book or print a coloring page and get to work.(2)
Listen to the right music.
Music can be relaxing to the body. While music you enjoy listening to is good for you, consider trying slow-paced instrumental music for stressful times. It can help trigger your relaxation response by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones.(8)
Maintain good lifestyle habits.
Seek professional help.
While many tips and suggestions help you calm your anxiety and stress, sometimes you need more. And there is no shame in needing help! Just like you go to the urologist for your bladder, seek out a mental health professional to address your struggles with anxiety and stress if they are beyond what you can manage on your own. If your stress and anxiety are evolving into more generalized anxiety, depression or otherwise keeping you from living your life, definitely seek help. If you aren’t sure whether you need professional help, then seek it out. Life is stressful living with a chronic health condition like IC. Take care of all of you!
Take prescribed medications.
Going along with seeking professional help, if your medical provider prescribes you medication to help you relax and/or treat your anxiety, take it as instructed. And some prescriptions that help bladder symptoms also help with mental health. For example, amitriptyline, a commonly use medication for IC, is actually an antidepressant. Even if you aren’t taking medication for anxiety or depression, just maintaining your bladder medications and managing your IC as well as you can will help lower your anxiety and stress.
- Shapiro S. The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger. TEDx Talks. Oct. 2016.
- Scott E. Effective Stress Relievers for Your Life. Very Well Mind. July 29, 2021.
- Nortje A. How to Practice Mindfulness: 11 Practical Steps and Tips. Positive Psychology. Feb. 8, 2021.
- Grace S. 7 Christian Mindfulness Exercises to See God in Daily Life. Calming Grace. June 23, 2021.
- Scott E. How to Reduce Stress With Breathing Exercises. Very Well Mind. July 1, 2020.
- Smith A. How Can Your Stop a Panic Attack?. Medical News Today. Sept. 29, 2020.
- Greater Good Science Center. A 3-Minute Body Scan Meditation to Cultivate Mindfulness. Mindful. March 6, 2017.
- Jennings KA. 16 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress and Anxiety. Healthline. Aug. 28, 2018.