Everyone has their own way of dealing with things and different strategies for managing an uncomfortable situation. This applies to anyone, with or without a medical condition. Whether you have a phobia, get stage fright, or suffer debilitating symptoms from an illness, we all find ways to cope with stress and manage our conditions.
I’ve pooped my pants on more occasions that I would like to remember thanks to my Crohn’s. Of course, it’s horrible and embarrassing when it happens, but I know it wasn’t my fault. It was the disease.
Symptoms are uncontrollable, especially during a bad flare, however in certain situations my symptoms were worse, particularly if I was stressed or anxious. It’s like being the director of your own movie. Once you picture something in your head, it can be difficult to move on from that and remove that thought. The perfect example for me is sitting in a car stuck in a traffic jam with no toilets for miles. I have soiled my pants sitting in the car, even on a 5-minute drive to work. When we had friends to stay at our 1-bathroom apartment with no separate toilet, as soon as I heard them get up to have a shower, my gut would start working overtime. I once pooped into a bucket beside my bed when this happened.
During a flare, as soon as I knew there was no toilet accessible to me, I would start panicking. My heart would beat faster, I would get hot and sweaty, tense up and sometimes even had trouble swallowing and breathing. I believe this is known as the fight-or-flight response. Incredible what stress can do to our bodies and nervous system, and how it can make our symptoms (or our reaction to them) that much worse.
The number 1 way to manage this would be to avoid putting yourself in a situation you feel uncomfortable in. For some, this may be their only option. However, that may not always be possible. You need to get to work, do the shopping, or you might want to push yourself and venture out of your comfort zone just so you can live a normal life and go out and do the things you enjoy. For me, it was important that I do this whenever I felt well enough, and so I was constantly looking for ways to make my life easier and reduce my anxiety when I did decide to extend my boundaries.
There are many different coping mechanisms and distraction techniques, some specific to IBD, and others which may be useful for any stressful situation. Here are a few that I find helpful:
1. Be prepared: Carry a backup bag with anything you might need in case of an accident. I carried a spare change of clothes, plastic bags, baby wipes and towel with me wherever I went. No exceptions. I didn’t need it often, but knowing I had it there if necessary was a reassurance in itself.
2. Yoga and breathing: Yoga and deep breathing (pranayama) are very relaxing. If I’m feeling anxious, taking a few long, deep breaths can be very grounding and keep anxiety at bay. Some people also find meditation helpful, although I’ve never been able to switch my thoughts off when meditating!
3. See a Psychologist: Talking to someone removed from your situation may be beneficial.
- It might feel strange and be difficult to open up at first, but some days it really helped me to get everything off my chest. I was completely honest and didn’t feel as if I had to put on a brave face (which admittedly sometimes I did when talking to friends and family).
- A psychologist might also aid with guided meditation and visualisation.
- My psychologist helped me come to terms with having a chronic disease, understand my relationship with myself, Crohn’s and my loved ones better, grieve, put a different (more positive) spin on things, realise what I have to be grateful for, laugh and cry!
4. Try Hypnotherapy: My hypnotherapist was invaluable and helped me increase my distraction techniques exponentially! And no, she didn’t make me cluck like a chicken!! Hypnotherapy and being hypnotised are completely different things!
- I attended a special 5 session gut directed hypnotherapy and a 12 week Master Your Mind program which included hypnotherapy sessions as well as other activities to help in everyday life. I was incredibly sceptical at first and didn’t really know what to expect.
- I came out with a much deeper understanding of my thought patterns, fears, values, negative behaviours, self-created barriers and more importantly methods, techniques, and greater mindfulness that I continue to use every day.
- 90% of the day my attention and energy would be absorbed with Crohn’s or something related to it. I needed a way to focus my mind on something else. Hypnotherapy helped me do this.
- To detach myself from those anxious feelings that are overwhelming or unhelpful, my mindful distraction techniques include:
- Singing a song: Singing an upbeat song out loud engages your mind and senses. I would often sing walking home from the station when I sensed anxious thoughts coming on. These are my 2 favourites:
- Phonetic alphabet: When sitting in the car stuck at traffic lights read out all the nearby road signs and number plates using the phonetic alphabet
- The “Colours” game: Chose a colour and list out loud (or in your head if it’s not appropriate!) all those coloured items in the room or space you are in
- Photo a day: Try a hobby that helps focus your attention elsewhere
- Positive affirmations: Choose several affirmations and consciously replace negative or invasive thoughts with positive ones. I wrote mine on a sheet of paper and stuck them to my bathroom mirror to say aloud twice a day. If feeling a bit uneasy, I would repeat these over and over in my mind (you can do this anywhere, any time)
5. Understand your body:
- Be aware of the physical warning signs, and if possible fend off the anxiety before the body has a chance to react further or the stressful thought gets too ingrained in your head (eg. by deep breathing). Separate the physical from the mental. Try not to stress if something does happen. It’s not your fault, and just because it’s happened once doesn’t mean it will happen again.
- Are your symptoms worse at certain times of the day, or after you’ve just eaten? If you can, plan your day around this.
6. Plot a route: When driving, plot a route beforehand so you know where the rest stops are. There are so many apps you can get nowadays that tell you where the closest toilets are located. Don’t forget your Can’t Wait Card.
7. Support groups: Attending a monthly support group helped me especially immediately following my diagnosis with gaining greater understanding and knowing there were other people going through what I was going through. They might share some of their coping mechanisms too! https://www.crohnsandcolitis.com.au/find-support/support-groups/