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