THURSDAY, November 24, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Stress impacts gut health and increases pain, which — for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — can make traveling to see family during the holiday season excruciating.

“People living with IBS often say that the holidays are particularly stressful, beyond the typical vacation stress that most people report,” said Tiffany Taft, medical social scientist and clinical psychologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.

For the 15% of Americans who live with IBS, Taft shared some tips as they gather for the season.

“Stress directly impacts IBS via the gut-brain axis, which includes parts of the brain that are part of the body’s fight-flight-freeze response,” she said. “Stress can increase pain, alter gut motility – whether speeding up or slowing down depending on the individual – and change the composition of the gut microbiome.”

This can make the symptoms worse. For some, this may mean more frequent visits to the bathroom. For others, it may mean less than usual. Symptoms may include increased stomach pain and cramps, gas, and an increased urgency to go to the bathroom.

Taft said the holidays can cause stress because some people have family members who don’t understand or support IBS. You may be concerned or anxious to ask about changes to the holiday menu due to dietary needs.

Instead of having an awkward conversation, the person with IBS can eat foods that don’t agree with them, Taft said.

Additionally, she noted that “travel can be stressful for patients, including the worry of having symptoms while flying or driving long distances. In short, the holidays can put a spotlight on a person’s irritable bowel syndrome and strategies the person may have in place to keep IBS symptoms at bay can be compromised, which can become incredibly stressful.”

If you have IBS and are stressed out from travel, practice relaxation strategies beforehand, she advised.

The body will give physical cues that you’re feeling stressed — for example, shoulders bulging toward your ears, a tight jaw, or tightness in your chest. Watch for these signs and take five minutes to relax, Taft said.

This can include meditating with an app, taking deep breaths, or imagining a relaxing place. All of these can reduce stress in the body.

Listen to a favorite song or take a minute to stretch, Taft suggested.

“Identify unhelpful, catastrophic thinking. That’s not the power of positive thinking, it’s taking away the power that negative thoughts can have over our feelings,” she explained. “If you find yourself thinking, ‘What if Grandma doesn’t understand my IBS diet and she’s going to get so mad,’ then that may very well be true. Instead of repeating the “what ifs” over and over, lean into it. What can I do if it happens? Make a list of possible ways to solve the problem the “what if” poses.”

When people worry, they tend to forget anything they’ve already overcome or been through, Taft noted.

“Grandma can get angry, and you can handle it,” she said.

More information

The US National Library of Medicine has more on irritable bowel syndrome.

SOURCE: Northwestern University, press release, November 21, 2022