Living with a chronic illness can take a toll on your mental health. We understand how challenging it can be to manage not only the physical symptoms but also the stress, depression, and anxiety that often come along with a condition like Crohn’s disease.
Feeling like you can’t rely on your own body can have a negative impact on your mind. It’s okay if you are struggling with your symptoms. You’re not alone.
In this article, we’ll discuss the unique challenges that living with Crohn’s disease brings, how these can affect your mental health, and, most importantly, what mindfulness can do to help.
Crohn's disease and your mental health
Crohn’s disease causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract –that’s the digestive passageway that leads from the mouth to the anus. It belongs to a group of health conditions known as inflammatory bowel diseases or IBDs.
IBDs affect an estimated 3 million adult Americans. Crohn’s disease affects everybody differently, but common symptoms and side effects include persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal cramps, loss of appetite, fatigue, an urgent need to poop, and more.
People living with Crohn’s disease often experience periods when symptoms are active, known as flares, followed by periods of remission when symptoms almost disappear. When Crohn’s disease symptoms do strike, they can come on suddenly, without warning.
Living with these, often stigmatized, symptoms and their unpredictability can be stressful and overwhelming. Depending on others, feeling the sudden need to use the restroom and increased flatulence, for example, can make you feel insecure or fearful and lead to poor self-image.
Going out can sometimes feel overwhelming and give you so much anxiety, always wondering where the toilet is or worrying you will suddenly feel ill when you’re out.
It’s not surprising, then, that the rate of depression and anxiety disorders are common among people with Crohn’s disease.
The gut-brain connection
Aside from the fact that many of the symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, and embarrassment, there is also a biological reason that living with Crohn’s can harm your emotional well-being. It’s called the gut-brain connection.
The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines and vice-versa. Just think about how nervousness can give you “butterflies” or watching a scary movie can feel like a “gut-wrenching” experience.
Our gut collects messages and sends them to the brain, and the brain collects messages and sends them to the gut.
If you’re living with Crohn’s, there’s evidence to suggest that this two-way communication may be disturbed, which can affect your psychological state or emotional response. In turn, stress, anxiety, or depression may trigger digestive symptoms. However, more research is needed to understand this fully.
Coping with Crohn's disease
Looking after your mental health is just as important as treating the physical symptoms when it comes to managing Crohn’s disease.
There are several ways to feel more in control and optimistic about your ability to manage your condition, including:
Committing to self-care
It can be difficult to be kind to yourself if you’re going through a hard time but slipping into self-loathing only worsens things. You are much more than your condition and have lots to offer, even on difficult days.
Sticking to your treatment plan
Everybody’s experience of Crohn’s disease is different. Working closely with your doctor to create and review a treatment plan that works for you is important. Moreover, sticking to your treatment plan can help you avoid flares and improve your overall quality of life.
Paying attention to your diet
Being thoughtful about what foods you eat can help replace lost nutrients and promote healing.
Furthermore, becoming aware of what foods help to ease your symptoms vs. what foods act as triggers can help you to gain more control over your condition. For example, you may find that soft, bland foods cause less discomfort than spicy or high-fiber foods during flares.
A normal diet during a flare-up can make diarrhea and stomach aches worse, and some foods in particular can be linked to the symptoms.
Doing a little exercise when you can – even if you start with a few minutes a day – can make you feel better and improve your sleep hygiene. Increasing physical activity levels can help with fatigue too.
I’d built up a lot of negativity around the condition, thinking that my body was useless and I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do. Running helps me push back those negative thoughts and know that my body can still do stuff.
Building a solid support network
It’s important to remember that it’s okay to ask for help. Talking about things and communicating your needs can help you process what you’re going through. Talking about their worries with a friend or family member is enough for some people, while others may benefit from talking to a mental health professional.
What mindfulness can do to help
Mindfulness is based on the idea that we are present in the here and now in a nonjudgemental way. By practicing mindfulness, you can become more aware of your thoughts and how they affect you – ultimately learning how to replace unhelpful reoccurring thoughts with more positive ones.
Relaxation, meditation, and stress-management exercises may help you to alleviate discomfort and better cope with symptoms. Mindfulness, in particular, can help you to reduce your stress levels and emotional reactivity.
I think just being vulnerable and being myself has not only affected my mindset, but it’s allowed me to handle my disease better.
Sidekick’s Crohn’s disease program
At Sidekick Health, we create digital programs that aim to improve the lives of people living with chronic conditions. Our Crohn’s Disease program is designed to support you in developing a mindfulness practice that focuses on making positive, long-term behavioral changes for an improved quality of life.
How does it work? The Sidekick app includes helpful educational content on key areas, including reducing stress, increasing energy levels, getting better sleep, building an activity plan that works for you, and maintaining a healthy diet.
With Sidekick, those affected not only receive important information about their disease but are also supported in many everyday questions and accompanied in a motivating manner. Sidekick helps people to use their own resources and to actively tackle life with inflammatory bowel disease.
Sticking to a treatment plan, committing to self-care, and getting the right support are invaluable when living with a chronic condition like Crohn’s disease.
Explore our other content on mindfulness, nutrition, and stress management for more inspiration on how to stay optimistic and take back control of your health today.