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Stressed-out stomach? Try 2 psychology hacks to boost gut health

For very stressed people, “the holidays can push their bodies into the red zone.”

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December often brings many meals to look forward to, regardless of how you spend your holiday season. Candied yams, crispy latkes, gravy-smothered turkey — all may be on the menu. Throw in a glass of eggnog and a slice of fruitcake, and even the greatest gourmands would be stuffed.

Being stuffed may be satisfying, but it can also be sickening. The winter holiday feasts can result in upset stomachs for many — in part due to the heady mix of rich foods and drinks, but also nerves. This may be especially true for people who already have G.I. issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a widespread condition that affects roughly 15 percent of the United States population.

“What’s frustrating about the digestive system is that it’s pretty unpredictable because so many things affect how it functions and it’s rarely just food,” says Tiffany Taft, a clinical psychologist and research associate professor at Northwestern University.

Taft researches the psychological effects of multiple digestive illnesses and interventions that can help mitigate distress and symptoms. Taft acknowledges that digestive issues can seem to strike at random, but there are actions you can take if you feel a little apprehensive about your stomach this holiday season.

Stomach issues and stress

Our guts are susceptible to the effects of stress — even if you do want to partake in that toast.

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“The stress most people feel around the holidays can absolutely contribute to digestive issues,” Taft says.

This is because of what’s called the gut-brain axis, a link between the central and the enteric nervous system. The enteric nervous system is a web embedded in the wall of the gastrointestinal system, while the central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord.

Taft describes the gut-brain axis as a “complex two-way ‘super highway’ of communication.” It involves the flight-or-flight areas of our brains, the vagus nerve, and the gut microbiome, which influences mental health. When you feel butterflies in your stomach, for example, that’s a result of this connection. And when a person has a digestive illness, those butterflies can morph into different symptoms, including pain, bloating, and nausea, Taft explains.

Chronic stress can also alter the gut microbiome, exacerbating digestive problems.

“If a person has a lot of ongoing life stress, the holidays can push their bodies into the red zone,” Taft says. “Unfortunately our guts are quite susceptible to the effects of stress.”

In turn, worrying about having stomach issues at a family gathering or office party can worsen the problem. Because our flight-or-fight response can’t differentiate between real threats and concerns about a potential threat, the sheer possibility of a digestive upset can engage the gut-brain axis.

“This sets off a vicious cycle of anticipating symptoms and associated unpleasant experiences, which turns up the stress response, which can make digestive symptoms worse,” Taft says. “Normal anticipation and concern can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is highly frustrating for the person and can make avoiding social situations feel like the easier solution.”

How to prep a nervous stomach for the holidays

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people assume the primary trigger of digestive problems is food, Taft says. But whatever triggers stomach issues is rarely just food, and fear about certain foods can also lead to restrictive diets that might not work and may even damage your relationship to food in general.

“The once simple act of eating becomes stressful,” she says.

In terms of what you eat, it may be less stressful to consume smaller servings as part of a large meal composed of dishes that might otherwise be hard to stomach.

“With foods, it’s often a cumulative effect,” Taft says. “So, if I ate one thing that was risky, I’d probably be ok. But if I eat three things that are risky, I may be pushing my luck.”

If you’re eating out, you might also pack medications to relieve any digestive upsets so you can stay at your event.

Beyond food, there are other steps you can take that relate to mental health. Staying calm even if digestive problems flare up may be key to managing these symptoms and enjoying your time during the holidays, Taft explains.

To that end, it may be helpful to:

  • Add relaxation skills to your toolbox for managing digestive issues

This is not a one-size-fits-all solution — some people benefit from meditation, while others prefer calming breaths. What matters is to figure out what works for you and then practice it.

“Think of it like learning any skill,” Taft says. “Without regulation practice, trying to use something like slow, deep breathing only in times of peak stress is akin to trying to run a 5K when you’ve not run more than a few blocks in your whole life.”

  • Engage in positive self-talk

Self-talk affects our mood, and positive self-talk is shown to improve emotional regulation and up our chances of achieving a goal.

“With digestive conditions like IBS, people likely have experienced some pretty awful situations, and it's normal to try to prevent them with ‘what if?’ thinking,” Taft says. “But ‘what if’ thinking — without generating solutions or remembering our strengths in difficult situations and how we've managed in the past — sets the perfect stage for anxiety that can light up the brain-gut axis and make digestive symptoms worse.”

Catastrophic thinking, in turn, can make your situation worse. Instead, what is more likely to help is the reflection: Yes, something might happen, but I can handle it.

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