Dealing with the physical side effects of having a gut disorder is hard enough, but I personally find that dealing with the mental side can often be just as hard, if not harder.
Searching online, it’s surprising how hard it is to find information and support on this. There’s so many great websites with recipes and advice on what and what not to eat but not actually that much around the stress and anxiety that living with your tummy condition can cause.
I’ve already had a couple of people send me some lovely messages about how my blog has helped them feel better about following a low FODMAP diet and like “there’s hope” – this honestly is the most amazing feedback and is why I created thetummydiaries in the first place. I think one of the most important things when suffering, whatever it is and whatever the scale, is to feel like you’re not alone; which is why I wanted to share with you my own story about anxiety vs tummy problems…
First of all, let’s start with the facts. There is actually a lot of research out there to prove that the two are linked – a troubled brain can send signals to the gut, but also a troubled gut can send signals to the brain. This is because our brain and our digestive system are very closely linked through a network of nerves which line our gut. These nerves control digestion but are also influenced by centres higher up in our brain. This means that not only when you feel stressed it can cause stomach problems, but also vice versa – your tummy problems could be causing your stress, anxiety or even depression.
I had never really considered myself to be an anxious person until a few years ago, and although I’ve had a few biggies happen to me in this time, I think a large part of the reason for this is my tummy problems. As you may have read in my previous posts, I have always had a strong (probably too strong) relationship with food – constantly thinking about my next meal, pre-planning my restaurant choices and over eating because it tastes great! This isn’t too much of a bad thing when you can eat what you want, but when you throw a stomach condition into the mix (for me it’s my hiatus hernia and probably IBS or something similar so still testing) then your love for food can become a very negative thing.
As mentioned in my tummy bio, my gluten free and FODMAP journey began over three years ago now, after spending a couple of months vomiting on an almost daily basis, after eating. I had no idea what was going on, I felt scared, upset and also lonely as I knew that my family and friends were talking and quietly, suspecting I was making myself sick on purpose. Luckily, my love for food was strong enough to not make me stop eating; however it soon began to make me feel anxious, especially when eating out. I would dread going to a restaurant as knew that the inevitable would happen. That feeling of the food being stuck in my throat, the nausea and then the stomach pains – it would literally take minutes, and I would soon have to rush to the toilet to throw up and spend the rest of the evening cramped up with a hot water bottle. And even more horrifically, sometimes people would be in the toilets at the same time! I’d try and hide until they were gone, but I could hear them (and if I couldn’t actually hear, I could in my head) talking and judging me, it made me feel awful.
After months of blood tests, ultrasounds and gastroscopy’s I was finally diagnosed with a hiatus hernia. Researching it, I’m not completely convinced that this is what it is – perhaps it’s IBS, perhaps something else – but either way, after discovering the low FODMAP diet I began to find some relief.
Getting used to the diet was a massive struggle, and still is at times. I felt constantly defeated, thinking I was eating something on the safe list but still ending up either being sick or looking like a pregnant puffer fish and swollen for days. I would get so frustrated and couldn’t believe how many things there were to check – not just “safe” foods, but the portions of these “safe” foods, the overall portion size of the meal, and for me even the time I ate (if I eat after 8pm I find that I really struggle). The pain and bloating would get me so down; having to cancel nights out, change outfits due to not fitting into anything, or just feeling like I wanted to be on my own in bed. It’s only now after three years that I feel I have really gotten to grips with it. I have started from scratch and followed the elimination phase three times now, but have now seemed to find a modified balance that works for me; restrict but not unmanageable.
I’m now at a point where I feel pretty much completely in control when I am eating at home. I stick strictly to my safe list and try and eat smaller portions, not too late at night. This has really helped me both mentally and physically, however the feeling of anxiety and panic still comes back when I’m not in the comfort of my own home.
I recently wrote a blog post about how to safely follow a low FODMAP diet when eating out. Following my little process has really helped reduce both my physical symptoms and my mental up to the dreaded event – however, there are always those times when you don’t have the opportunity to research or choose your restaurant. Working in events, and being a fairly social person, I often find myself attending team meals, going to friends’ houses, weddings or grabbing food on the go – none of which I can be 100% in control with.
Attending 7 weddings this year has been amazing (I love a wedding!) but also horrible. I would tell the bride and groom that I needed something gluten free, but couldn’t bring myself to mention the garlic and onion (never mind the rest of the list). It’s their big day; I don’t want to stress them out or for them to think I’m a fussy diva! I spent the week leading up to almost every one (on a couple of them my boyfriend cheekily emailed ahead to sort it bless him!) absolutely dreading the wedding breakfast – it’s bound to be absolutely swimming in garlic and onion; why wouldn’t it be – they taste delicious!? I crammed in as many rice cakes as I could into my clutch bag but found the whole meal time experience awful. My boyfriend would very generously eat my food for me (poor him) but I was worried people would notice (which they did) and ask why I wasn’t eating, and then I’d have to try and explain as briefly as I could to absolute strangers whilst trying not to cry from the frustration and embarrassment.
Then eating on the go!? The amount of times I have dragged my poor boyfriend around countless shops in a hopeless ploy to desperately try to find something safe to eat – ending up in full blown tears and with a sad looking pack of ham.
…Or even worse, I give up and eat the closest to safe I can find and suffer the consequences. When consequences occur, whether it be due to a circumstance like this or by pure accident, that’s when it affects me the most. The sickness usually only lasts a day or two, but the bloating can last up to a few weeks, just from one tiny little bite. And the mental side…
• I feel down because I look fat and can’t fit into any of my clothes
• Annoyed that I ate something not safe (whether on purpose or by accident)
• Frustrated because why does it have to be me? I’m not even fussy, I love food and food used to love me!
• Tired because I’ve had enough of feeling like this and will I ever get better!?
I know that there are a lot lot worse conditions that you can suffer from, and am by no means trying to seek sympathy, but in my own little world, this is big for me, and is a major part of my life. I really really don’t want this to come across as a cry for attention, but instead want it to be something that others feeling the same can relate to, and know that they are not alone.
You will have your bad days, but if you look after yourself (and for me, that’s following the low FODMAP diet, exercising and getting enough sleep) then you will have a lot more good days. Not being in control of what you eat is always difficult, but by pre-planning as much as you can, and having a support network of people around you (by talking to people) it can feel a lot more manageable.
I’m sorry for the extremely long post, but actually I could talk about this forever, so if it’s something that people are interested in or find helpful then perhaps I will talk about it more, in some shorter blogs that go into a bit more detail about different elements. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below…
*please note that this blog was written around my own personal experiences and is in no way intended to be medical advice. If you are experiencing physical or mental symptoms of possible gut conditions please do seek proper medical advice.