The Mind-Body Connection
Coping with the physical symptoms of a chronic disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis can be very challenging, but what about its effects on your emotions? Conversely, can your state of mind affect your physical symptoms?
Dr. Charles Bernstein, a well-known Canadian researcher, tells us that in a Crohn’s and Colitis Canada-funded study comparing people who experienced a colitis flare-up to those who did not, there were no differences between the groups in areas such as the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics or the presence of infections. What was different was the perception of stress experienced by the study subjects. Notably, it was not the presence or absence of stress that was found to be significant; it was the degree to which an individual perceived their stress that was important. While other research has proven that stress does not cause Crohn’s or colitis, we now know that its perception and a flare-up of Crohn’s or colitis symptoms are intertwined.
On the flip side of the coin, Crohn’s and Colitis Canada-funded research is also discovering that these diseases impact people psychologically even when the disease is not active. In fact, people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have a higher risk of developing psychological problems, such as depression, than the general population.
Another research project has discovered that depression aggravates the body’s reaction to inflammation and may increase the symptoms of Crohn’s or colitis. To study these phenomena, Crohn’s and Colitis Canada is funding an investigation that will examine the link between depression and changes in the bacterial composition of the gut. This important research will determine what, if any, the physiological responses to a person’s emotional state are.
Here we have the classic “chicken and the egg” dilemma – Crohn’s and colitis can cause depression and exert stress on those who suffer from the disease; conversely the perception of stress and the shadow of depression can increase symptoms and even bring on a flare-up. At this time, science does not know which comes first – but we do know that the mind and the body work together to jointly affect a person’s health.
The mind-body connection is a powerful one. What can you do to shape it in a direction that is most beneficial to you and your health? Here are some general tips that have helped others with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis feel stronger, both emotionally and physically:
- Exercise, sports and activities - When you are not in a flare-up, get involved in an activity that keeps you moving. Just being engaged in something that is physical enhances your feelings of strength and restrains the attitude that you are a person who is “sick.” When you are having a flare-up, try to keep moving with gentle activities such as tai chi, walking or yoga. Think “I can” rather than “I cannot”
- “DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF – and it’s all small stuff” – said Dr. Richard Carlson in his internationally best-selling book. Putting life’s issues into perspective and not letting them get to you are incredibly helpful in reducing stress and relieving tension.
- Ask your doctor for a referral to a stress-management professional. You can learn techniques that will help you cope with stress in a useful and empowering way. Remember, it is not the stress in your life that is the issue – it is your perception of it that is the key.
- Learn to say “NO.” Don’t over-commit and over-schedule yourself to the point where you are frustrated and exhausted. You can’t maintain a healthy spirit when you are drained and at the end of your rope.
Finally, find a community of people who understand what you are going through and share your concerns. Don’t let these diseases isolate you from other people – loneliness can be a terrible side-effect of a chronic disease but it doesn’t have to be. Sign up to be connected on-line with a peer mentor. Click here to find out more about our one-on-one peer mentoring program Gutsy Peer Support. Or to connect with others face to face, there are Crohn’s and Colitis Canada Chapters across the country that offer fellowship and an opportunity to take action - find one near you if possible, or start one and help yourself and others. Click here to find out more about Crohn's and Colitis Canada in your community.