Whether it’s a holiday like Halloween or a wedding weekend (both of which I experienced the past few days), it’s important to stay ahead of IBD symptoms and be proactive in how you approach the big moments and the big days in your life so you can enjoy them. The unpredictability of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can feel suffocating when you are hoping and praying your body doesn’t betray you on the big days.
Here’s how I mentally and physically prepare so I can stay ahead of my Crohn’s and be in the moment with family and friends.
Be extra cautious with what you drink and your diet. Caffeine and alcohol are triggers for me…and for many people with IBD. The day of my brother’s wedding I refrained from drinking coffee and alcohol so I didn’t have to worry about needing to run to the bathroom in my bridesmaid dress or have to think about how bloated I could get from the abdominal pain a few drinks can cause. My Crohn’s felt non-existent the entire day, thank you Jesus!
When I am traveling and away from home, I am extra mindful of what I eat and keep it on the safe side, especially if I’m going on a road trip with my family or flying the friendly skies. You know your triggers, try to steer clear from them as much as you can. If I am celebrating a holiday at home or at my parent’s house, I tend to be a little “riskier” because of the comfort level I have using the bathroom there, resting, etc.
Be choosy about your shapewear. I don’t know about you, but ever since my Crohn’s diagnosis I’ve never liked Spanx, belts, or anything restrictive around my waist. I rarely ever wear jeans with a button. For my brother’s wedding I wore Spanx that were biker shorts that went up to the bottom of my bra and it was a game changer, especially being 3 months postpartum! I didn’t have any stomach or bloating issues. Highly recommend the Spanx High-Waisted Power Short.
Pack pain medication and maintenance meds. Just because you’re away from home celebrating a holiday or a wedding, doesn’t mean it’s time to be flippant about managing your disease. When I’m packing, I always take more than I need when it comes to pain medication, even if I haven’t needed it or used it for months. Bring extra strength Tylenol and any prescription pain medication you may need along with your “typical” medication (if you take it). Be mindful of how long you are traveling and if you could face delays, etc. If you are flying, always keep medication on you, so it’s right where you need it and so you don’t chance anyone taking it out of your luggage.
With my Humira I look ahead when I have a big event and plan accordingly. For my wedding for instance, my injection was due two days after I tied the knot. My GI had me move up my dose to the day of the rehearsal dinner so I could have some extra coverage.
Try and get as much rest as possible. With IBD we all know fatigue is one of our most difficult symptoms to handle. Throw in travel and being out of your normal surroundings and life can really feel like an uphill battle. Allow for downtime and breaks throughout the day if you’re able so you can give your body time to adjust to the hustle and bustle.
Practice deep breathing and mindfulness. If you feel symptoms creeping in try and take deep breaths and ground yourself. Lay down and gently put one hand on your chest and your other hand on your belly. Feel your stomach slowly rise and be present in the moment. Close your eyes—remind yourself that pain is fleeting and go to your happy place. Diaphragmatic Breathing, also known as deep breathing or belly breathing, helps to manage stress.
Don’t suffer in silence. This is the hardest part of all. I always struggle articulating when I’m not feeling well on the “big” days. I never want to damper the mood or make people worry so I internalize my pain and put on a smile. As a mom of three little ones, especially on holidays like Halloween and Christmas I never want to allow my disease to take away from the special, memorable moments. But this can make the struggle even worse. I find quietly telling my husband or my mom that my “Crohn’s is acting up” that it takes some of the weight off my shoulders so they at least know why I may need help, may not be as talkative, or may not seem to be acting myself.
Use these times as a “teachable” moment. Before I started sharing my story publicly, you’d never hear me tell someone I barely knew I had Crohn’s disease. But now, I find it extremely helpful to drop that line whenever I can. You’ll find making others aware can bring about much needed support, understanding, and even intrigue. Telling others I have Crohn’s disease feels like a normal, casual part of conversation now for me. At my brother’s wedding my IBD came up several times in conversation—with the hair and make up people, to my cousins coming up to me and saying, “I have co-workers with Crohn’s, and I tell them all about your blog.”
While IBD is not our identity, it’s a large part of who we are and impacts many of the decisions we make each day that can influence everything from what we eat or drink at a party or social gathering to how we participate in milestones and festivities. Taking the guesswork out for others takes a bit of the pressure off and can make you feel less overwhelmed and more comfortable and at ease.
For IBD mom, Suzy Burnett, reflecting on the past year and half of living through the COVID-19 pandemic causes her to feel flooded with emotions. She knew having three children under the age of five at age 41, while dealing with the ebbs and flows of Crohn’s disease, would be challenging. She delivered her son, Guy, just as COVID cases were starting to soar. Now, she’s able to look back on how her family adapted and thrived, despite the difficult circumstances of living through a global pandemic with a chronic illness. I’ll let her take it away…
Like many families, we’ve worn masks, stayed at home, literally have seen no one except our wonderful neighbors, and made sacrifices to ensure the safety of ourselves and others. We made the difficult decision not to send our 5-year-old to kindergarten, rather, enroll her in virtual 4k from the confines of our home. Our 3-year-old also didn’t attend preschool a few mornings a week like we had originally planned. We have noticed the lack of socialization has impacted her the most. Our 15-month-old is just now meeting family and friends for the first time. He takes stranger danger to a whole new level, but we know he’ll warm up in due time.
My husband, like so many others, started working from home. What was once thought to be a temporary safety precaution, has become a permanent situation. He continues to work in a room without doors while the wee ones race around playing superheroes. Noise canceling headphones have become a lifesaver. All of us together at home, day after day, month after month. Our bond has grown deeper, and our Burnett Party of 5 has survived. I can honestly say we live fuller, laugh harder, hold each other longer, and love deeper.
Dealing with the lifting of the mask mandate
Just as we were beginning to get used to our personal version of Groundhog’s Day, the mask mandate was lifted. This is a huge milestone, but with that brings excitement along with anxiety. My husband and I are both vaccinated, but our 3 young children will have to continue to wait their turn. To say we’re trepidatious about starting to acclimate back into society is an understatement. We’ve been in our little bubble on Welcome Drive for more than a year. I don’t think things will ever get back to “normal,” per say, but we’re looking forward to what our “new normal” will be. It’s a new beginning, a fresh start to be more present, and we have the opportunity to give precedence to things that matter most in life. Things will be a little different than before, and we will always remember and carry the weight that was and will forever be COVID.
We will continue to have our groceries delivered as well as basic necessities, because it’s unclear who is vaccinated, and I’m not going to rely on the honor system of strangers to keep my kiddos safe. However, I am beyond the moon ecstatic that our girlies will both be doing outdoor soccer and playdates with other vaccinated families. My husband will continue to work from home, but this is a change we welcome and greatly appreciate. It has given us time as a family we never knew we were missing. Our oldest daughter, Lucy, will finally be attending kindergarten…….wait for it….IN PERSON. I am so proud of her. She’s sacrificed so much these past several months. She’s handled herself with grace and class far beyond her years. We’re planning our first family trip in over two years, and I am completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of the happiness this will bring.
Coming out stronger than before
It has been months of peaks and valleys, but our mountain remains strong. On top of enduring the pandemic, we lost our family cat, Miles. He was a furry friend to our littles when they couldn’t see their own friends. My dear Grandma Connors was called amongst the angels, and now she protects us from above. I also recently almost lost my sister due to a post birth hemorrhage, but now she rests safely at home with her baby boy. And I am recovering from a nasty bout of C.difficile. Yes, the one time I left the house I picked up a bacteria from the hospital. Through it all though, we’re stronger than ever before because of our strong family foundation.
My point in saying all of this is that we all go through our own struggles. Life is so unexpected, and often we can’t choose what we’re dealt. We can, however, choose how we handle the storm. We’re so grateful for our health, happiness, and each day we’re given. Take NOTHING for granted because every day is a gift. Everyone has been impacted one way or another these past few years, and now it’s up to you to see where your ship will go as you navigate life with IBD and in general. As the tides of the ocean swiftly change, so will the moments in life. Savor the moments.
When you live with chronic illness, you experience a wide range of emotions and personal experiences that shape you. Life can feel like an uncertain rollercoaster ride, you never know when the next twist or turn is going to happen. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, 21-year-old Parsa Iranmahboub, candidly shares the mental health burden that IBD brings upon a patient. Diagnosed with Crohn’s when he was only eight years old, Parsa shares the perspective of what it’s like to be a pediatric patient who has grown into adulthood. He’s currently a student at UCLA and the Education Chair for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s National Council of College Students.
Parsa explains the psychosocial component of life with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis by breaking it down to anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness. He recently spoke about this at the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress as well as on IBD Patient Insider and his powerful words resonated with me and I know they will with you, too. Here’s Parsa’s breakdown of the IBD patient experience:
Anxiety: Being a bathroom disease, there is often the anxiety of whether a patient has easy accessibility to a restroom when they are out. But there can also be anxiety related to a patient’s diet. When I was younger, I was placed on a low sodium diet due to one of my medications. If I wanted to eat out with family or friends, there would be this anxiety of whether I could even eat anything from the restaurant. There’s also the anxiety that stems from extra-intestinal manifestations. I have a history of developing fistulas. And during my sophomore year of college, my labs were not looking too good, I was flaring a little bit, and I began to worry if this meant I would develop another fistula. I began to wonder how I would deal with a fistula as a college student. How would another flare up affect my grades and my ability to get my work done? I lived in a communal style dorm, so how would a sitz bath even work? Essentially, with anxiety there can be this fear of the disease taking over my life and how can I constantly accommodate it.
Embarrassment: Embarrassment can arise in numerous forms. For one, there’s the poo taboo. But there can also be embarrassment from when you are flaring. From when you are losing weight, when you no longer look healthy, when you now look “sick.” There are the side effects from medications. From when you begin to gain weight, develop acne, and now have that dreaded moon face. Let’s not forget the impact of extra-intestinal manifestations. In 6th grade, I had surgery for a perianal fistula. After the surgery, I had to wear tighty whities with a maxi pad to help absorb the pus. It would be an understatement to describe how much I began to despise physical education. Not because I had to exercise and run around. No, I was always too active of a kid to hate PE. But because we had to change into our uniforms during the beginning of class. And I was embarrassed to be in the locker room. I was embarrassed that everyone else would look cool with their boxers, but here I was with my tighty whities and a maxi pad. And it might sound ridiculous, almost like a scene taken from the “Diary of the Wimpy Kid”, but to my sixth-grade self, looking cool and being like everyone else mattered.
Guilt: There is often the guilt of feeling like a burden for others. That others have to not only be flexible with you but that they need to make accommodations because of you. “Oh, you all want to go hiking, well I can’t because there’s no accessible bathroom.” “Oh, you all want to eat at this place, actually can we go somewhere else where I can better tolerate the food?” There can even be instances where you feel guilt for believing that you no longer are a good friend. That since you have to refuse to hang out with friends because of fatigue or pain, your friends probably think you simply don’t enjoy hanging out with them. But there can also be guilt from a non-compliant label. When I was younger, I would receive weekly injections. Soon, I began to throw up after every injection. My doctor switched me to the pill version, but it would still make me feel incredibly nauseous. So much so, that I would refuse to touch the pills. Instead, I would take the pill container, open the lid, slowly pour the pills into the lid, pour too many, attempt to pour the extra pills from the lid back to the container, and once again pour too many pills back. It was a whole process. But I simply refused to touch the pills.
Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise that eventually I became non-compliant. Consequently, I switched medications and soon developed acute pancreatitis. At the onset of my symptoms, I was out of the house and had to call my dad to pick me up because I was continuing to throw up blood. And in the car, I told him “Dad, I think I’m going to die.” Thankfully, it was an over exaggeration. But at that moment, it wasn’t.
Now that I reflect on the moment, not only do I feel guilty for putting myself through that situation, but for also putting my family through that. I can’t imagine being a father and hearing your son tell you those words. And all of this happened because I couldn’t get myself to take those stupid pills. So, not only was I labeled as a non-compliant patient, a patient who was too immature to take his medications, but I was now also a patient who had “hurt” his family.
Loneliness: IBD is an invisible disease. You might look at a person and not realize they are living with a chronic illness. The invisibility is both the disease’s blessing and curse. There have been so many instances where I’ve been happy to have the ability to put on a mask and pretend that everything is okay. That my friends and peers do not have to associate me with a “disease,” a connotation that I despise so much that I often introduce my chronic illness as Crohn’s and not Crohn’s disease. However, because of the invisibility, the disease can feel extremely isolating. You might not know anyone else who can relate to your experiences/feelings. In fact, despite being diagnosed at a young age, for almost a decade I refused to share my story with friends and those close to me. It wasn’t until I met an IBD patient for the first time who was my age that I began to realize the importance of a shared community.
Dr. Tiffany Taft , PsyD, MIS, a Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, spoke alongside Parsa during that Crohn’s and Colitis panel about Mental Health as it relates to IBD. As a Crohn’s patient of 19 years herself, she offers a unique perspective for her patients. I asked her when an IBD patient expresses these feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness how she helps people deal with the struggles.
“The first thing I do is simply listen and reflect to the person my understanding without advice or judgement. It’s important to let someone tell their story before interjecting with any sort of interpretation or the like. Then, I start with some education about how our thoughts affect how we feel and how we behave. And that these thoughts are often on autopilot or may feel like they’re on an infinite loop and impossible to turn off,” explained Dr. Taft. “My goal is to help the patient understand their thinking and learn to slow it down and take a step back from their thoughts to be able to evaluate them, and maybe either change them or not let them have as much power.”
She went on to say that from there her and her patients tie their thoughts into other symptoms like anxiety, shame, or guilt, to see patterns and opportunities for change.
“It’s not an easy process, but most people can succeed. Loneliness has been harder during the pandemic. Social distancing has created a lot of isolation without an easy solution. I encourage staying connected via video chat, texting, and social media (so long as it’s not stressful!) People say that online interactions aren’t as fulfilling, and that’s probably true. But if I shift my thoughts from this negative lens to a more positive perspective, then it can help offset some of that loneliness until we can all be together again.”
The Decision to Open Up
It takes time and patience for many of us to come to terms with our diagnosis and decide how we want to present our experience to the world. For both Parsa and me, it took us a decade to take off our proverbial masks and share our reality with those around us. Parsa says he decided to share his patient journey at the end of freshman year of college after he joined a research lab at the UCLA Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. He met someone for the first time who was his age and had IBD.
“When I was talking with her, this sort of light bulb just sparked. I realized I could connect with this person in a way I couldn’t have connected with anyone else before. She truly understood the challenges I was facing or had faced. Not from a scientific or “oh, I see” perspective, but from a “oh, I know cause you’re not alone” perspective. This connection was essentially my first exposure to the IBD community, and slowly, I began to become more involved in the community.”
The Power of Connecting with the IBD Community
Parsa went from forming his first spin4 team to joining the National Council of College Leaders to becoming more involved with his local chapter in California. He then started a local support network for college students on the UCLA campus. His advice for patients and caregivers—find a support network within the IBD community.
Foundation of National Council of College Leaders (NCCL)—this group of college students from across the United States volunteers with the Foundation to provide a distinct voice for young adults with IBD. Members also connect on how IBD affects them as students, athletes, and partners in a relationship, the intersectionality that stems from a patient’s identity, and tips for having an ostomy bag, reducing stress through coping mechanisms, and applying for accommodations at school.
Parsa also co-founded IBDetermined at UCLA, a student organization geared towards providing a support network and advocacy-centered space for UCLA students with IBD.
“Even though there are some amazing national and local support groups, we noticed that there was a gap for local resources that focused specifically on the intersection between being a college student and an IBD patient. Hence, we wanted to create that more local space, where individuals could address their specific questions/concerns/thoughts relating to being an IBD college student at UCLA. It’s a space where our members can learn about accommodations that are available through our university’s Center for Accessible Education, can exchange tips and advice for navigating schoolwork and college life with IBD, can express their frustrations about the disease or the lack of university resources, and can share where the best and cleanest bathrooms are located on campus.”
Parsa says growing up with Crohn’s made him responsible at a young age. He learned about resilience. He learned to embrace the obstacles he has hurdled and to keep on pushing through even when he couldn’t immediately see the light at the end of the tunnel. Parsa says he learned to appreciate the time he felt healthy enough to live life not controlled by a chronic illness. Through the years he’s realized you can still be fortunate through a misfortune. This belief has given him a strong appreciation to make the most of the opportunities that come his way and refuse to take the easy way out.
When I asked 34-year-old Amanda Osowski how she’s juggling Crohn’s disease, motherhood, and IVF during the pandemic, she said “with caution.” And rightfully so! These times are complicated and overwhelming for everyone. Add some chronic illnesses and trying to maintain your health, sanity, and emotions while doing all that and trying to get pregnant with a second child through IVF, and I’m amazed she found the time and energy to write this guest post! I’ll let her take it away.
Here we are, more than 7 months into a global pandemic, still wondering if and when life may “resume as normal”. To be honest, in my house, life has in some ways paused and in other ways accelerated since the March quarantines began. As an IBD patient on Remicade (an immunosuppressant medication to manage my Crohn’s disease), I have chosen from the beginning to adhere strictly to social distancing, mask wearing, unnecessary exposure and other risk reducing options.
This also meant that my job, my income, and my ability to support others has transitioned from mainly in-person to entirely virtual. The silver lining of this is that I’m able to work with clients all over the world. Balancing that alongside parenthood, and IBD during a pandemic requires a good bit of patience, strategic thinking, and deliberate planning.
Gearing up for Baby #2 Through IVF
My husband and I were diagnosed with Unexplained Infertility in 2017 while trying to conceive our first child. After several failed treatments, we had one successful round of IVF in which I became pregnant with our daughter in the fall of 2018. As soon as she was born, we knew we wanted to have another baby close in age – both for our family planning goals and in hopes that I would be able to maintain my Crohn’s remission status long enough to complete another pregnancy.
While we began trying naturally as soon as we were ready, we knew that the recommendation for fertility treatment was to wait until 12 months passed after delivering our daughter. I desperately hoped that we’d get lucky before then, and that we’d end up with natural conception, rather than going through the physical, emotional, and financial journey of another cycle of IVF. I also knew that I wanted another baby, and that would happen however it was meant to.
How the pandemic has impacted fertility treatments
We were scheduled to begin fertility testing in March 2020, with treatment starting in April. As I’m sure you guessed, that was immediately halted with the closing of most fertility offices and the pausing of all new treatment cycles with the influx of COVID-19 cases and concerns. Having my treatment (and my timeline) be paused indefinitely with the continuing anxiety and stress of the pandemic caused my IBD symptoms to increase – something that then caused me more anxiety and stress about its impact on my IVF plan if and when I was able to reschedule treatment.
After an exceptionally long few months, my doctor’s office re-connected with me about getting my appointments scheduled. My IBD while not flaring, was not perfectly calm either, and that’s such an important part to me about preparing for pregnancy, so we gave it a little more time. FINALLY, this month (September), I began the treatment protocol I should’ve started five months earlier. Our daughter Brooklyn just turned 16 months old.
Today you’ll find me managing IVF medication injections around business calls, my Remicade infusion schedule, chasing a toddler and being stuck inside my home around the clock. It’s HARD, and exhausting, but it’s the only way I know how to make my hopes come true.
Tips for handling IBD + IVF
Communication with your partner is critical. From parenting responsibilities to COVID-19 precautions to childcare to work stressors to fertility treatment planning and execution – there is an entire machine full of decisions and emotions that are part of every single day, and not being on the same page as your partner can have devastating effects. My recommendation: schedule time once a week on your calendar after bedtime to talk. Keep a list running during the week of things to add to the conversation. Ask all your questions to each other then, when you can focus and talk and connect. You’re a team, and it’s important in this season to work together.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. When managing IBD + ANYTHING, let alone motherhood, and a pandemic, and fertility treatment, taking time to check in with your mental health and care for yourself is imperative. Each of these things come with so many feelings, and burying them all will only make it harder to deal (& keep your IBD in check!) I personally recommend working with a counselor, taking time to journal or meditate or center yourself, and ensure you’re checking in with your own needs regularly.
Social Media Strategy – During the pandemic, I think we’ve all admitted to more screen time than usual. I know firsthand that the amount of pregnancy announcements, gender reveals, new baby births & seeing families with multiple kiddos can cause feelings of guilt, frustration, jealousy, anger, etc. Social media can make things feel extra difficult for those struggling to get pregnant, undergoing fertility treatments AND managing something like IBD. Here’s what I recommend. The beauty of social media is that we can choose what we do and don’t see while we scroll. This is a perfect time to click “hide” or “unfollow” on any hashtags or accounts that make you feel sad or icky. That’s not to say you don’t love your neighbor/friend/co-worker, but in my opinion you also don’t have to constantly watch their highlight reel. On the flipside, utilize social media to connect with your TRIBE. Whether that’s other IBD and IVF warriors, others struggling with infertility, etc – there’s so much more space for online communities now than there ever has been before. If you’re having difficulty finding and connecting with others, please DM me and I’m happy to make some suggestions! Also, please know that whatever you’re feeling during this experience and this season is so valid, and you’re not alone!
Give yourself grace. There will be days when you feel inadequate – as a parent, as a spouse, as a patient – these moments don’t define you. You’re juggling so much, it’s so important to know that you’re doing the best you can, even if that looks different than it used to or different than you’d like it to.
If my story resonated with you, or you’d like to connect, please reach out! You can find me on Instagram personally as @amanda.osowski and professionally as @heartfeltbeginnings.
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.
No one feels their best when they are unwell, and this is no different for those with chronic illness. There is an ebb and flow to anything chronic – meaning there are good and bad days – but what happens when your bad days outweigh your good days?
In a Twitter poll I conducted this week asking fellow patients how IBD has impacted their mental health, 40% said they’ve experienced depression and it’s a struggle, while 60% said they’ve dealt with mental health issues from time to time. I found it telling that no one who responded to the poll said their mental health wasn’t impacted at all.
This week a guest post from 31-year-old Louise Helen Hunt from the United Kingdom. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2011 and has undergone four surgeries in the last three years. Louise opens up about her struggles with mental health, while living with IBD and offers incredible perspective and words of wisdom that everyone in our community should be mindful of. I’ll let her take it away…
I hit rock bottom six months into my IBD diagnosis. I struggled to find a treatment plan that worked. This involved months of being in and out of hospital. I tried very hard to be positive, but I was sinking. I refused help, I didn’t want to talk about it and I certainly didn’t want any more medication.
Fast forward to 2018, six years since those first depressive episodes and I was still feeling depressed. I’d gone through two major surgeries very close together, came out with a stoma, struggled with my body image and was starting a new job. It was a stressful time and I was not coping. I needed help.
There are lots of emotions experienced by those who live with IBD, both positive and negative. Depression and anxiety come up often on patient surveys from various sources, rates of depression are higher among IBD patients as compared to the general population.
The balancing act of IBD and Depression
Depression is a serious mood disorder that causes feelings of sadness and loss of interest. Depression can make you feel exhausted, worthless, helpless, and hopeless. It can also make dealing with daily tasks difficult. Tasks associated with managing a chronic illness may even feel insurmountable.
Depression often gets worse if it is not treated. IBD specialists are encouraged to assess not just the physical symptoms, but also the emotional symptoms. These can be:
Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
Feelings of hopelessness, negativity
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
Loss of appetite, weight loss, or overeating and weight gain
Restlessness and irritability
Depression is treatable. It is important to seek out a counsellor who has experience in treating people who live with chronic illness. And while it can take some time for the symptoms of depression to go away, seeking treatment can help improve your mood, your quality of life, and your ability to cope with IBD.
This can be in the form of Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – an evidence-based treatment for depression and anxiety, it works to identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours which can contribute to depression – or medication management which can be used in addition to therapy.
How to handle depression when you’re chronically ill
Talk to like-minded people – this could be online, at a support group or your friends.
Keep a journal – getting your thoughts out of your head can be very taxing but ultimately therapeutic.
Take your prescribed medication regularly.
Remember there is no shame in needing or taking medication to cope with your symptoms.
Be active – whether this is running or going to the gym, even something as simple as a regular walk can help: being outside and feeling grounded – literally – can lessen some of the symptoms of depression.
If you are having a crisis, please seek medical attention. Be proactive and pick up the phone.
Don’t expect to “snap out of it.” Instead, expect to feel a little better each day.
Ask for and accept help from your family and friends.
Know that positive thinking will eventually replace negative thinking as your depression responds to treatment.
Remember that feeling better takes time, and that your mood will likely improve gradually, not immediately.
Coloring books aren’t just for kids, they can be a helpful calming tool for those who battle chronic illness. The simple act of coloring intricate shapes and patterns allows us to enter a meditative mental space. Once you enter this state of calm amongst the stress surrounding your life, you can take in the positive messages of a coloring book.
I recently connected with an artist named Alia who created a coloring book specifically geared toward those who battle inflammatory bowel disease. It’s called “Crohn’s and Colitis: Color to Cope.” After watching her sister battle Crohn’s disease for more than 20 years, she was inspired to use her talents to make a difference.
Alia says, “Seeing how much my sister suffered, physically and emotionally with Crohn’s inspired me to create a coloring book. The psychological aspect of coming to terms with IBD is very underestimated, especially for young women. I wanted to create something to make her feel better. I noticed there was a limited number of informational books available. Adult coloring is a proven stress reliever and engages the limbic (emotional) brain. It helps you enter a ‘flow’ like state. I thought pairing inspiring/supportive quotes with images would help anyone suffering with IBD process what they are feeling.”
See the support in the palm of your hands
The coloring book is a visual representation of support that many of us in the IBD community yearn for. It validates and honors our experiences—no matter what age you are. Flipping through the pages, you’ll see quotes and images for times of stress, sadness and laughter. The coloring book provides an accessible way to release stress and get motivated to take on the day.
Since the coloring book launched, Alia has received amazing feedback from the IBD community. Here’s an example shared on Instagram:
“Thank you for creating this coloring book. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 17 and am now 33. After four surgeries and two ostomies, as well as a lifetime of stories that no one would truly understand unless you were in my shoes, I think this book is very therapeutic and I appreciate your empathy and support. Thinking of you & your sister. Much love.”
The inspiration behind the art
As someone with a creative mind whose passion lies in art, Alia did research within the IBD community to see what types of images might resonate, along with key messages and emotions. Safe to say, the girl did her homework!
Alia went on to explain that coloring calms the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls the fight or flight response. This part of the brain is often on high alert during periods of stress or illness. When we’re fatigued, and our energy is low, coloring isn’t taxing, it can take us back to our childhood. A time of life that was most likely more carefree. Whether you’re at home or in a hospital bed, the coloring book can serve as a helpful tool in your day-to-day management of your illness.
How to get your hands on a copy
The coloring book is available on Amazon in the United States, the UK and Europe. Click here to purchase “Crohn’s and Colitis: Color to Cope.” The coloring book is published under Alia’s author name: “MeMoments Creative”.
Follow Alia on Instagram: @crohns.colitis.color2cope
Along with IBD, Alia has also created coloring books geared towards infertility. Her most recent book targets mental health—depression and anxiety. She plans to create more coloring books in the future that can serve as a support tool for other patient communities as well.