How to train your brain to challenge your IBS self.
Do you ever find you have those brave moments that you tend to regret?
I’m exactly that person who bullishly signs up to things without passing a single thought, but when it actually comes to it, I find every excuse under the sun to bail. Annoyingly, these ridiculous situation I get myself in to tend to set off a bout of anxiety leading to a rather unpleasant IBS episode. My bloated stomach along with the pain at the foot of my spine further impedes my anxiety. It’s a self perpetuating cycle, that I’ve become well acquainted with – yes, I’m talking about you gut-brain axis!
Take my recent open swim race. I was all up for it at the time of booking months before, then as the date approached my nerves kicked in and I could feel myself physically retreating, like a timid mouse running away from an oversized lions mouth. You name it, I had answers for everything – the weather wasn’t playing ball so I couldn’t train as much as I’d have liked, my fitness level wasn’t at its best because gyms have been closed, what if struggle, what if I don’t complete the course…you get the picture. I was telling myself I wasn’t good enough and I subconsciously fought this belief, swaying to a fro between ‘you can’, ‘you can’t’.
But, I’m a women of word and this race wasn’t just mine. It was an agreement between me and my swimming buddy who together have spent the last five years bonding over the shock of bringing twins in to the world, using sport as our outlet to feel freedom – we just so happen to share a love of pushing ourselves, some might go so far as to call it slightly competitive!
On the day, as we walked towards our fate, my friend turned around to me and said she’d had the most horrific sleep. One of those where you hear absolutely everything (and nothing!), fear the absolute worst and generally fall in and of a weird conscious state. What did she put it down to? Anxiety.
Fearing the unknown of the event, something that was a distance past thanks to COVID wiping out any kind of friendly sporting event. It had got to her. This is the very same person who spurs me on, supports me in achieving my goals, someone brimming full of belief and confidence. At this moment, I realised, we can ALL fear. The secret is not letting it get so far it gets in the way of allowing us to do what we want to do (I’m making notes to remind myself this for the next time!) – or indeed igniting an IBS episode.
And it turns out we weren’t the only two thinking this. We overheard so many people nervously laughing over how little practice they’d managed to squeeze in. I finally relaxed and felt right at home, I was doing something I absolutely love along with all these people who have the same passion. My fear thawed out, I knew I was ready.
As I swam out in to the deep blue in my pod, I grasped for breath in between the spicy waves slapping my face and began to feel my rhythm. We all swam in unison, it came so naturally as if we were a school of dolphins dancing through the water. Then came the turning point and our rhythm changed as we adapted to the current and the new direction of the waves. Fear not, we were still being slapped in the face, just at a slightly different angle.
I began on my long stretch – the home run – when my mind began to wander, pondering over how I was actually doing this, keeping up with my peers and despite conditions not being as perfect as I’d hoped (perfectionist, who me?!) I was up there with the best and in my element. I spent the rest of the race in a beautiful meditative state, simply gliding and enjoying the moment.
Now imagine if I had talked myself out of the race, how would I be feeling today?
Put it this way, I wouldn’t be sporting my shiny new medal, nor would I be feeling too great about myself. I imagine my brain would be enabling a further IBS episode and my energy levels would be low. Compared to the reality having broken through my fear? I’ve been flying high since and have seemingly regained my competitive energy.
So how do we train our brain?
Eat a Varied Plant Based Diet – I bang on about this A LOT, but we really are what we eat. If we fuel ourselves with food containing zero nutrients, we’re not taking of ourselves. This means we’re depriving our whole selves including our brains ability to function. Try feasting on nuts such as walnuts and brazil nuts, both are high in omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols, the perfect brain food. And remember to eat your greens! These are bursting full of brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K and beta carotene.
Prioritise Sleep – sleep is one of the things that can make or break us. A lack of sleep can negatively impact our emotions as well as our broader brain function and mental health. Try refraining from looking at your phone whilst in bed, not only are screens known as a stimulant, but the blue light is thought to suppress melatonin levels and delay sleepiness.
Get Moving – engaging in a light to moderate exercise that you really enjoy can turn movement from a mundane event to a truly mindful and uplifting event. Take my swimming experience, this is my happy place that allows me to enter in to a meditative state. I get the same from walking across the south downs and foraging for wild foods. Both totally different, but both have the ability to release serotonin, our happy hormone, in abundance.
Breathe – breath is the one tool we have in our kit bag that we can use whenever and wherever, yet is often our most underused resource. It is perhaps the most powerful technique that not only allows us to relax, but has the ability to bring us to a naturally calm and connected state. If you prefer movement whilst focusing on your breath work, yoga is for you. And there is nothing more relaxing than a beautifully led body scan before bed!
Journal – the power of writing your own thoughts down is immense. Simply writing down affirmations (positive statements) can help you to challenge and overcome self-sabotaging and negative thoughts. I like to mix my journalling up with affirmations, commitments as well as a little free writing – it acts as a brain dump allowing me to move on from my thoughts and get on with the job in hand.
Consider Taking a Social Media Break – this is a great habit to get in too. As great as social media can be, it does come with it pitfalls. One of which being that we get to see how great everyone else’s lives look compared to ours. When we’re feeling anxious about something we want to do, it’s often hard to remember that this is just positioning and not necessarily real life. Be brutal and switch things off as you’re approaching your big event, it will allow your focus to remain on solely you!
My big advice, DON’T fear the bloat or let it put you off from doing anything!
You really CAN do anything you want to!
After all, what’s the worst that can happen?