Discover how stress management techniques can help you manage Crohn’s symptoms during flare-ups, and read emerging evidence about Crohn’s and the gut-brain axis.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease, one that can affect any part of your digestive system, but more typically affects your large intestine (colon) and/or small intestine. Symptoms tend to come and go, becoming more severe during flare-ups.
No one knows, for sure, what causes Crohn’s disease, although researchers think these three issues are at the foundation of the condition (more about gut-brain research breakthroughs later in this post!):
immune system problems
Environmental factors that might help to trigger Crohn’s disease (not cause it, but help to trigger the condition) include:
substances from food
bacteria or viruses
There are probably other environmental triggers that medical researchers haven’t yet discovered. And, there’s also an intricate relationship between Crohn’s disease and stress. Stress doesn’t cause the condition, but there is a definite relationship between Crohn’s and stress—and, therefore, a relationship between stress management techniques and Crohn’s disease management.
At a high level, Crohn’s flare-ups can be caused in part by stress, and the symptoms themselves can then trigger more stress, sending you into a cycle that can be hard to break. So, in this post, we’ll take a deep dive into ways to manage your stress for a healthier life.
Crohn’s Disease and Stress Management Techniques
Different techniques work for different people, and we encourage you to mix and match from this list to find out what works best for you. As you go through this list, remember that sharing your concerns with a trusted friend or family member, or perhaps with a therapist or in a support group, can bring about significant stress relief all by itself. Also, talk to your doctor about your condition. Sometimes, just being more informed can help with your anxiety.
Healthline.com shares plenty of techniques to consider, including deep breathing, and WebMD.com shares multiple ways to use deep breathing to help manage stress. In general, it’s important to pick a comfortable place, which could be in a cozy chair, your bed, on a mat on your floor, or wherever you can relax. Wearing comfortable clothes can help, and so can not putting pressure on yourself to perform. Just close your eyes and take deep breaths in and out, once or twice a day, for a few minutes at a time. As this begins to feel natural to you, you can then add in other techniques to make this even more of an effective stress buster.
For example, you can create an image in your mind that you find especially calming, perhaps of a favorite spot on a beach. As you breathe in, invite in a sense of peace and calm and picture it gently spreading throughout your entire body. As you breathe out, recognize that stress and tension are now leaving your body. It can help to think about certain phrases as you perform your deep breathing, ones like, “I am breathing in beauty and calmness and breathing out any stress that’s in my body.” Try this for ten to twenty minutes and see how different you feel.
Healthline.com also suggests biofeedback as a stress management technique. This requires a biofeedback machine that’s available at some physical therapist offices, medical centers and hospitals. There are also versions that you can purchase for your home.
With biofeedback, sensors are attached to your body so that certain functions can be measured. The goal is to help you to learn about how your body works so you can gain more control over some responses that used to be considered involuntary ones. As you become more knowledgeable about your bodily responses to stress, you can then learn techniques to respond to them differently.
Biofeedback techniques can include electromyography (EMG), which measures how your muscle tension changes; thermal, which measures how your body’s temperature changes; and electroencephalography, which monitors brain waves. It can also measure galvanic skin response (sweat) and pulse and heart rates.
In general, biofeedback is most effective in managing conditions that are influenced by stress, which can include Crohn’s disease. It is non-invasive and doesn’t include any medications.
Exercise can also help significantly, with EverydayHealth.com listing helpful techniques for people with Crohn’s disease, including:
Strength training: Because medications for Crohn’s, along with nutritional issues, can lead to bone weakness, it can be important for people with this condition to do what they can to maintain bone density.
Walking aerobically: High-impact aerobics can increase symptoms for some people with Crohn’s, but walking at an aerobic pace can often provide benefits without side effects.
Cycling: One study showed that people with Crohn’s disease could use a stationary bike without limitation, and it didn’t cause symptom flare-ups.
Dancing: This activity can boost the production of brain chemicals that help to fight stress, anxiety and depression.
Swimming: This is one of the least stressful aerobic exercises available, and can especially help the 25 percent of people with Crohn’s who also have arthritis.
Doing yoga: This can be an excellent activity to reduce stress while boosting physical fitness, an ideal combo.
Participating in Pilates: This form of exercise, meanwhile, can build core strength while also helping to address stress.
Tai Chi: Originally, this was a form of self-defense in China, and its slow, flowing movements, along with deep breathing techniques, allow participants to stretch and relax. This form of exercise can therefore help to fight against stress and anxiety.
Meditation can also be tremendously helpful, with The Harvard Gazette sharing relevant study results. Here is a quote from the article with encouraging news, indeed: “participation in the mind/body program [meditation] appeared to have significantly improved disease-related symptoms, anxiety, and overall quality of life, not only at the end of the study period but also three weeks later.”
If this idea appeals to you, consider reading Journaling Power: How to Create the Happy, Healthy Life You Want to Live. This book combines how-to techniques with the author’s story. Mari L. McCarthy received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and was significantly slowed down by the disease. After a year or two of therapeutic journaling, though, McCarthy says she no longer needs to take medications for the disease. Although she warns that no two people’s journeys are ever alike, and that each person should discuss medication withdrawal with their doctors before attempting it, therapeutic journaling allowed her to find a “door” into her “soul.”
This technique was referenced earlier, in the section about deep breathing techniques. It involves imagining settings that bring about a sense of tranquility, whether that’s floating on a river or resting on a green field while watching puffy clouds drift by. Healthline.com also recommends that you picture a “reed in a brisk wind.” If the reed remains brittle, it would break. But, it doesn’t. It adapts to the change in the air, flexing and bending. “Aim to be,” the article says, “the reed in stressful situations.”
Some people who have mild to moderate Crohn’s disease have found that acupuncture helps to bring about relaxation and relieve symptoms. This ancient form of Chinese medicine balances metabolic energy in the body through the use of strategic needle placement—without the need of medications. One Georgetown University study suggests this technique works because it slows down the production of stress hormones. Better yet, some people see results after just one treatment.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation recommends progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). They provide detailed instructions about these relaxation techniques for stress management and, at a high level, you tense and relax muscle groups in your body, allowing yourself to recognize the feeling of relaxation in various groups of muscles. Identify a muscle, hold it tight for seven to ten seconds, then relax it for twenty seconds before repeating that muscle group for a second time. You could start with your hands, then upper and lower arms, then shoulders and neck, head, chest, back, stomach, buttocks, legs, and toes. Then, tense up and relax your entire body all at once.
When you’re about to start a new exercise program, no matter which type it is, talk to your doctor first to help ensure that the program you choose will provide you with benefits you need without exacerbating your Crohn’s symptoms. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water during and after exercising.
Crohn’s Disease and Stress: Feel Prepared!
Let’s say that you’re about to go to a new restaurant. Because you have Crohn’s, this may trigger concerns about what’s on the menu; if you’ll be able to find foods that work well for you; if there are enough bathrooms and where they’re located; and so forth. To help, do some advance legwork, perhaps by finding the menu online or calling the restaurant. You could also arrive a little bit earlier than other people in your group, giving yourself time to locate restrooms. And, in general, it doesn’t hurt to have a toilet finder app on your phone. Plus, in many states, it’s the law that businesses must allow people with a toilet emergency ID card to use their restrooms. You can find more information about these cards here—and, even if you never use the app or the card, just knowing that you have these tools as a backup plan can help to reduce your stress. You can also create an emergency kit that helps to ensure you always have what you need. This kit can include: Preparation may be especially important as you plan to travel. To help, we invite you to download our free guide that contains 9 Tips to Stress Free Travel.
Gut-Brain Axis and Crohn’s Disease
The gut-brain axis is a phrase that describes the pathways, both direct and indirect, that exist between the brain and gut. Communication between the two is now being understood as extremely critical in our understanding of human health, and the microorganisms found in your gut may be at the crux of it all. As one expert says, these microbes are so numerous and so important that people are really more microbe than they are human! More specific to this post, the gut-brain axis is being shown to be an integral part of Crohn’s. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Faculty of Life Sciences & Medicine at King’s College London discovered that healthy people who are at risk of developing Crohn’s “exhibit a mucosa-associated microbiota dysbiosis with a lower abundance of Faecalibacterium prausnitzii.”
Now, let’s break that mouthful of medical lingo apart. “Microbiota” are the microorganisms that exist in a certain site, such as the human gut. A “microbiota dysbiosis” means that these microorganisms are out of balance. “Mucosa-associated” just means they’re connected to a mucous membrane, such as the intestine. So, we now know that we’re talking about an imbalance of certain microorganisms in the gut—in this case, an imbalance because there’s a “lower abundance” (fewer of them!), with the microorganism in question having the name of Faecalibacterium prausnitzii.
This is a startling discovery! Researchers clearly still have plenty of work ahead of them as they decide what’s a cause, what’s an effect, and so forth in this intricate dance between gut microbes and human health, specifically in this case, Crohn’s disease—but this research provides illumination into how the microorganisms that play a central role in the gut-brain superhighway can also shed light into the underpinnings of Crohn’s disease.
One conclusion made by the researchers is that this gut imbalance in healthy people who are predisposed to getting Crohn’s disease influences the development of the disease, instead of being a consequence of it. And, if we can get a handle on disease development prevention . . . you get the picture!