Week 1: Understanding irritable bowel syndrome

Week 4: Healthy thinking, healthy self

Week 5: Balancing activity and reclaiming your life

Week 6: Maintaining your gains and staying well

Understanding the stress response

As we discussed in Week 1, your brain and digestive system are in constant communication with each other. If you’ve ever experienced a ‘gut feeling’ or ‘butterflies in your stomach’, then you have felt the effects of the gut-brain link. There is evidence that the communication between the brain and the gut is altered in irritable bowel syndrome. When you feel stressed, the brain activates it’s ‘stress response’, which can trigger irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. Having irritable bowel syndrome symptoms can also cause stress and anxiety. The gut sends signals back to the brain to keep the stress response switched on.  

Your body’s stress response is also called the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is a survival response, designed to help you escape real or imagined danger in your environment. When activated, the fight or flight response causes a range of physical changes in an attempt to help you respond quickly and protect yourself. Your heart and breathing rate gets faster, your blood is directed towards major muscle groups, you may start to sweat, your eyes widen, your digestive system slows down, and your muscles tense in preparation for action.  

The name ‘fight or flight’ comes from the way we typically respond to danger; we either stand and fight or we run away (flee) from the situation. Once the danger has passed, the physical changes reverse in an attempt to restore the body to a more relaxed state. Your heart and breathing rate decrease, muscles begin to relax and normal bodily functions begin again. However, the return to normal doesn’t happen straight away and symptoms can remain for some time after the danger has gone. 

In the past, danger mostly came in the form of threats to physical safety. Our ancestors were faced with many life threatening situations, like predator attacks and extreme living conditions. In these cases, the fight or flight response served them well by allowing them to navigate a dangerous world. However, the challenges we face today are often very different to those of the past. Life threatening situations are far less common and modern day ‘predators’ come in the form of inescapable social or psychological pressures. Many of today’s stressors are ongoing and simply don’t allow us to fight or run away from them.  

Examples of ongoing stressors in modern life include a looming work deadline, family difficulties, money issues, traffic jams and a build up of housework. As a result, there is chronic or repeated activation of the stress response. Chronic stress can lead to a range of health concerns, including high blood pressure, heart disease, poor sleep, and mental health problems like anxiety and depression. It is also a risk factor for obesity, causing people to eat more, gain abdominal fat, and exercise less.