Why this public bathroom triggers me: Tactics for coping with the mental health aspect of IBD

I paid for my groceries and casually pushed my cart full of food through the automatic door when I saw it. The bathroom where I experienced one of my scariest and most painful moments. The bathroom I had to run into after pulling over on my way home from work because I was in such debilitating pain, I couldn’t handle sitting upright in my car to make it the extra five minutes home. The bathroom where I lost all feeling in my arms and legs and where my fingers locked into painful contortions. I couldn’t even hold my phone to call my boyfriend (now husband) to tell him we needed to go to the hospital. The bathroom where I unknowingly happened to call my mom after accidentally hitting “Recent Calls” with my elbow. All she heard on the other line when she answered was me screaming. She didn’t know if I was getting raped, she didn’t know what the hell was going on and she was in a different state. God was watching out for me because she was able to call Bobby and let him know I needed help and I needed help fast.

He rushed to the grocery store and whisked me out of the bathroom and straight to the hospital where I found out I had a bowel obstruction.

I’ve been going to this same grocery store for nearly seven years. It’s been nearly six years since that dramatic experience occurred. But even now, five years into remission, I always go out the other doors because seeing that bathroom is a trigger. A trigger to one of my lowest points in my patient journey with Crohn’s disease. A trigger that caused my IBD to act up right in that moment this past week.

I was forced to go out of the grocery store that way as part of COVID-19 safety procedures to keep all incoming traffic through one set of doors and all outgoing traffic to another.

Coping with psychological triggers

When those of us in the IBD community hear the word “trigger”, food usually comes to mind. We casually say “oh that’s a trigger food for me”, but we often don’t pay much attention to the physical triggers in our lives that can exacerbate our symptoms—such as locations like that grocery store bathroom, relationships with certain friends and family members, the pressure of being enough and doing enough in comparison to our peers, the list goes on.

I interviewed Dr. Tiffany Taft, PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and a fellow IBD warrior to get some clarity on this subject and to learn more about what steps we can make right now to protect our mental health and prepare for the unknown.

NH: As chronic illness patients–how can we best navigate triggers that instigate a stress response? (Other than avoidance)

Dr. Taft: “While avoidance feels like the safest option when it comes to situations that trigger our stress response, it simply kicks the can down the road in terms of the effects these situations have on our bodies. People living with chronic illness may collect multiple situations that trigger the stress response – doctor’s offices, hospitals, certain tests or treatments, making avoidance very risky if it means not managing the illness and staying healthy.

Try the “Exposure Hierarchy” exercise: Dr. Taft recommends making a list of activities or situations that are stressful, ranking them from the least stressful to the most stressful and picking 10 things. Rate those 10 things from 10 to 100 (100 being the worst). After making the list, she has patients start with number 10 and practice that task several times over the course of a week.

Before that, though, she teaches relaxation strategies such as deep breathing and grounding to help when the anxiety goes up. She says, “With repeated exposures to the feared situations and working through the anxiety, each time we do activity 10 again, it will feel easier and confidence grows. Once the patient is ready, they repeat with 20, 30, etc. until we get to the dreaded 100 which will actually feel less scary because of all the other work we did before.”

**NOTE** If you feel you have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which include vivid nightmares, flashbacks, and feeling on high alert most of the time, you should seek treatment with a trauma therapist. The good news is research on treatments for PTSD show they are just as effective when delivered via tele-medicine.

NH: Can you explain (in layman’s terms) what goes on when we’re “triggered”?

Dr. Taft: “Triggered is setting off our body’s fight-flight-freeze response, and results in a cascade of physical sensations and emotions. The most common ones are muscle tension, sweating, shallow breathing, and heart racing. Unfortunately, this response can also trigger our guts to start acting up because of the brain-gut connection. It’s a completely normal process but when you have IBD it can trigger symptoms. Your thoughts may be all over the place and littered with “what if’s” and “I can’ts”. Your mind may revisit the worst aspects of past experiences or come up with even more catastrophic possibilities in the future.”

NH: As people with IBD–I know many of us are nervous about flaring and needing to be hospitalized all alone during this pandemic, while being at greater risk for getting COVID. Do you have any advice on how to cope/mentally deal with that worry/concern?

Dr. Taft: “Facing a flare and hospitalization was stressful in the “before times” so facing this during COVID19 is an extra level of stress. While we have video chat, it does not replace the comfort of physical closeness and touch we would get from supports who could be in the hospital with us. The good news is hospitals have figured out COVID quite well and the odds of contracting it while hospitalized for IBD are lower than they were at the start of the pandemic.”

If you’re facing hospitalization, think about your resilience in these circumstances. There were probably times you felt like you couldn’t handle it, or it was never going to end or get better, but here you are today reading these words. You made it through. It may not have been pretty, it was probably incredibly hard. Anxiety has a great ability to negate our memories of how much we’ve navigated in the past.

Feeling anxious? Do this: Write down the ways you coped before, what worked and what maybe didn’t. Evaluate your thoughts about being hospitalized. Are they accurate? Are they helpful? What are some alternatives that could help you feel less anxious? If that doesn’t work, sit with the anxiety, and try some deep breathing to calm your nervous system. The sensations will likely pass and then you can retry evaluating your thinking when you aren’t feeling so keyed up.

NH: What advice do you have for people during these already complicated and challenging times when it comes to managing mental health?

Dr. Taft: “This is truly a unique time in that we are all in this COVID19 boat together. We all came into the pandemic with our own life challenges, and those probably haven’t gone away and even may have been made worse. We’re coping with a lot of information, new rules every other day, grim statistics, and people bickering over who’s right or wrong. I’ve told every patient I see to turn off the news. Get out of the comments on social media when people are arguing the same points over and over.”

Steps you can take in your day-to-day: Dr. Taft advises not to spend more than 15 minutes a day on the news, so you can stay informed but not get into the weeds. Take social media breaks, especially if your feed is full of the same tired arguments. Focus your attention on meaningful activities that align with your values. Those are what will bring you some stress relief. And those are unique to you, so no list on the internet of how to cope with COVID is going to solve everything. Sometimes these lists make us feel worse because we’re not doing most of the recommendations. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend or a beloved family member. Nobody has it figured out right now even though some people like to say they do.

Four IBD Physicians Talk COVID: What You Need to Know

Since the words “quarantine”, “self-distancing”, and “COVID-19” became a regular part of our vocabulary three months ago, there have been many fears, and a lot of gray areas for everyone, especially chronic illness patients on immunosuppressive therapies. I had a chance to connect with well-respected and prominent physician voices in the IBD community to get to the bottom of what we need to be doing right now, and how to best handle the days and months ahead.

One of the most common questions—who is at most risk in the IBD population for getting COVID-19? You may be surprised at the findings and discourse.

“We have been reassured that with the exception of steroids, patients with IBD are not at increased risk for bad outcomes with COVID. The risks are similar to the rest of the population,” explained Dr. David Rubin, MD, Professor and Chief of GI, The University of Chicago Medicine. “Older age, co-morbid conditions like obesity, diabetes or other medical problems, and smoking cigarettes put patients at increased risk.” COVIDarticle

Every study and case series has demonstrated NO increased risk for infection, COVID, or bad outcomes with biological therapies. This includes the work of the international registry (COVIDIBD.org and now published in Gastroenterology), the mixed immune patients of all kinds reported from NYU in the New England Journal of Medicine, and other series from Italy and China.

“We have good data now that IBD patients, even those on immunosuppressive therapies are not at increased risk of COVID. However, getting sick with COVID might mean holding off IBD meds, which could potentially trigger a flare,” said Dr. Aline Charabaty, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Clinical Director of the GI Division, Director of the Center for IBD, John Hopkins School of Medicine at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington D.C.

Don’t let your guard down

Dr. Charabaty advises everyone to continue to exercise common sense and be cautious for the upcoming months, otherwise we are at a risk of a second wave of COVID-19.

“Follow responsible physical distancing: avoid unnecessary travel, work from home if possible, and minimize outings in crowded places. Continue to wear a mask, wash hands/use disinfectant, in other words continue to follow COVID-19 precautions when out, or if you have to go to work.  The risk of exposure depends on the incidence of COVID-19 in an area, but also feeling overconfident in an area of low incidence can lead to unnecessary exposure,” she added. coronavirus-4937226_1280

Dr. Peter Higgins, MD, PhD, M.Sc., Director of IBD program, University of Michigan, recommends patients on steroids continue to stay home and avoid outside contact, but for patients not on steroids, the outdoors with a mask, away from crowds, can be therapeutic.

“The hard part is knowing when there will be crowds of people, and avoiding dense gatherings,” Dr. Higgins said. “Having open space and good airflow seems to be protective. Being in close quarters, especially with folks who are breathing hard (exercise, singing) seems to increase risk.”

Small Gatherings with friends and family (less than 10 people)

Dr Charabaty recommends the following:

  • Before gathering with family, make sure no one has had recent symptoms or exposure to someone who has tested positive.
  • When indoors with family staying 6 feet apart isn’t always feasible, wash your hands frequently and wear a mask if sitting close.
  • The idea is to share fun family moments, but remain cautious and protect yourself and loved ones.

“I would limit the number for gathering based on how much space you are entertaining in. Certainly, the more people there are, the more limited the physical space per individual there is to share,” said Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, MD, FACP, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. “With that in mind, I would ask people to not invite more people than they can physically safely distance themselves from. If we’re too close, we spread the virus. If we have distance, then we decrease the odds.”

Luckily, the summer months are perfect for outdoor festivities and gatherings with friends and family. Being indoors in close quarters is taking a calculated risk. It’s hard to know if everyone at a gathering is uninfected without a lot more testing or strict quarantine from every visitor beforehand.

Outdoor patio seating, should you, or shouldn’t you?

The waters get a bit murky here. The consensus is to get takeout and find a picnic spot far from others or to eat at home.

Dr. Charabaty says she tells patients and her family to avoid or limit outdoor dining. She explains, “It’s difficult for people handling and serving food to follow hand washing and social distancing when service is busy. I see many restaurant workers wearing gloves, and touching many different services, which gives a false sense of security. It’s not the cooked food that is an issue, it’s more the handling of the plates, glasses, and silverware.” Outdoor dining

Be mindful of how far tables are spaced out and call ahead to see what measures the restaurant is taking before you go.

Health pundits have pointed out that bathrooms are a point of contact for any infection to be transmitted. This is something to keep in mind, especially for those of us with IBD, who may need to frequent the bathroom more than most. “Hand dryers may aerosolize, and toilet flushes can create microscopic fecal plumes,” says Dr. Nandi. “Notably, coronavirus is present in stool at magnitudes lower than respiratory droplets, so their impact on developing clinically relevant disease is unknown. It is restaurant goers who are coughing and sneezing and then using the bathroom that may cause more concern. If you need to use the bathroom while out, use paper towels and close the toilet lid when flushing.”

Navigating everything from medical appointments to hair cuts

“I understand people wanting to go to hair salon; if you need to , and no one in your house can cut or color your hair, call ahead to make an appointment to minimize wait and exposure, and pick a day and time that are not busy,” said Dr. Charabaty. “If your visit to the physician is routine, you can discuss with your physician how soon you need to be seen. If it’s a sick appointment or a follow-up that you already needed to delay, then again, wear your mask, remove it only when needed; and wash your hands often.”

Before You Go: Ask medical offices and salons what precautions they are taking:

  • Does the office call patients ahead of time to check if they have symptoms suspicious of COVID?
  • What measures are being taken in waiting rooms?
  • Is everyone required to wear a mask?
  • Ideally you want to see lots of free, no-questions-asked testing in your local community/county to monitor COVID rates
  • A low level of new cases (less than 3 per week) in your local county
  • Lots of serious precautions taken, including possibly outdoor haircuts (common during 1918 flu pandemic), fans to increase airflow, and glove, gown, mask, and face shields on stylist/dentist/eye doctor to protect them as well as you. Recent exposures in Missouri reinforce this.

The future of telehealth

“I expect telehealth will continue- our estimate is that about 30-40% of routine visits may be virtual which is great, but this needs some careful reflection,” explained Dr. Rubin. “We need some thoughts and plans for better home monitoring and some additional guardrails to know when in person visits are needed and when providers or patients should request them. We don’t want to make mistakes and let patients slip through the cracks of virtual visits without physical examinations and adequate disease and therapy monitoring.”

The return to work

Ways to minimize exposure in the workplace and the questions to ask:

  • What measures is your employer taking to ensure responsible physical distancing?
  • Are employees required to wear a mask?
  • If working outside the home, leave clothes and shoes in the garage or the basement. Strip down and scrub down right when you get home.
  • If spouse has symptoms or if they’ve traveled to a high-risk area, they should quarantine.
  • Ask your boss if you can continue to work from home or increase the frequency of doing so to limit your exposure. Provide a note from your GI to Human Resources that explains why you are immunocompromised.
  • Monitor yourself or your spouse closely for fever, symptoms (including both respiratory and GI symptoms) and if possible, pulse oximetry to measure blood oxygen levels (a decrease is worrisome).

Dr. Higgins explains there are “high and low” risks work environments. High risk involves a crowded open space office full of cubicles, working in an ER/ICU/healthcare, assembly line/meatpacking plant, air travel, frequent contact with large numbers of people (bus driver). Lower risk jobs involve outdoor work, low density office spaces with closed doors/good airflow, and solo car travel. photo-1531493731235-b5c309dca387

“When it comes to spouse related travel, I would have them again speak with their employer about the necessity and yield of the trip. Much of what we can do currently can be done via teleconferencing,” said Dr. Nandi. “While the personal touch is always preferred, today’s times do necessitate that we be conservative and protect ourselves and our families. If travel is necessary, the spouse testing upon return is a good idea. If not possible, then conservatively a self-quarantine would be recommended. Of course, this presents marked strain on the functionality of any family. this emphasizes the need for greater and better testing capability.”

Remain cautious, don’t get too comfortable

Even with states re-opening, it’s on us to remain cautious and minimize unnecessary exposure while being able to provide for our families. We all have cabin fever going on, but we are all responsible to prevent a second wave of COVID by avoiding being complaisant.

“While it is reassuring to know that in general our patients with IBD do as well as the general population (or possibly better), it is prudent to continue our caution until we get to an R0 of <1.0 (meaning one infected person infects less than one additional person) by ongoing efforts to flatten the curve and/or a vaccine,” says Dr. Rubin. coronavirus-line-art-5019475_1280

This too shall pass

“It is sad and frustrating that this pandemic has occurred in our society, but I view it as a unique opportunity to get better connected: first with one’s self ; second with our immediate family and friends and third, with our natural environment,” said Dr. Nandi. “In my opinion, our Western society’s luxuries can often prevent us from enjoying the simplest pleasures in life. Thus, I take this time as an opportunity to spend quality time with my family, read more books, try new recipes, and workout more regularly. Because, I know in time, this too shall pass – and the opportunity that it presents will disappear as well.”