Being diagnosed with a Digestive Disorder is a life-changing event. Receiving a specific diagnosis can yield feelings of relief, validation, embarrassment, devastation, and isolation. That’s quite the emotional cocktail with which a person must contend! Yet, as 60-70 million people in America are living with a digestive disorder, it is safe to assume many navigate this emotional experience.
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Beyond the immediate response to the diagnosis, the personal nature of these disorders and their associated, socially unacceptable symptoms, individuals with digestive diseases may struggle with chronic feelings of isolation, shame, guilt, and a sense of “otherness.” As a result, physical, mental, and social health can suffer. More than the disorder’s symptoms need to be treated and managed. Whole health needs to be prioritized to ensure an individual with a digestive disorder can thrive in all areas of life.
Here are 7 tips on addressing whole health when living with digestive disorders:
Seek quality health care.
If you suspect you may have a digestive disorder or have already been diagnosed, it’s important to ensure you have the right healthcare providers. Prioritize check-ups, lab work, and required tests and treatments. A specialist may be necessary to assist with managing specific diagnoses. Also, finding a primary care physician who is aware of and sensitive to the needs of individuals with digestive disorders is crucial. The human body is a complex organism, and one system can impact another system. (Anyone who has had to make a bathroom trip due to “nerves” about public speaking will understand.) Therefore, working with a provider who understands your individual health needs will enhance your health outcomes.
Having a good relationship with your health provider is also important. Being able to ask questions and receive answers and information in a supportive manner helps alleviate the discomfort of discussing topics such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, belching and various other digestive-related symptoms. Ask around, read patient reviews and provider bios, and be willing to make a transition, if needed.
Know your diagnosis.
Trite as it may sound, knowledge truly is power. We can’t accept or manage what we do not know. Ask questions about your specific disorder including what treatment is available, how to manage symptoms, what foods or activities should be included and excluded, and what to expect in the future. Though it can be fear-inducing to explore what disease progression may look like, without this knowledge, anxiety can increase. Information provided by the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders website (www.iffgd.org), the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (www.niddk.nih.gov), and other such sites can help expand your knowledge and support base.
It is okay to take care of yourself! Necessary, in fact. Making time to explore and plan diet friendly meals and snacks is a first step. Also, because certain types of exercise can aggravate and others can help certain digestive disorders, knowing what types of activity are right for you and incorporating them into your daily routine are nurturing acts of self-kindness. As is taking time to practice relaxation techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and using visualization and guided imagery. Using essential oils such as peppermint, lavender, ginger, or lemon to scent your home and office is a wonderful aromatherapy intervention that can help manage symptoms including nausea and constipation.ii
Address Mental Health.
“Patients who have gastrointestinal disorders also have high psychiatric comorbidity.”iii As stated above, one system can impact another system. It is not uncommon for individuals with a digestive disorder to experience mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Because anxiety and depression can aggravate digestive disorders, and digestive disorders can lead to anxiety and depression, it is vitally important to attend to mental health symptoms if they present. Taking a whole-health approach to life by following provider-recommended treatments and food suggestions, living a healthy lifestyle, and promoting mental health by engaging in social supports, journaling, and cultivating a positive mindset goes a long way to ensuring optimal wellness.
Preparation is key.
Being proactive can save time and alleviate potential stress. When preparing for a night out, travel, or attending sporting and other events, let your fingers do the walking. Make good use of the internet by reviewing menus, locations of and access to restrooms, travel itineraries, and emailing your provider about travel letters for TSA if taking medications or medical equipment on a flight.iv Knowing, voicing, and having what you need in advance helps reduce anxiety, which also can reduce digestive disorder symptoms.
Remember you are not alone! Millions of individuals are living with a digestive disorder. Being vulnerable and advocating for our needs is scary and often requires us to do so despite feelings of embarrassment and shame. However, just because people don’t talk about digestive disorders or wear awareness t-shirts doesn’t mean others won’t empathize, or even relate. This doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone about your personal diagnoses. Using language such as, “It is important for me to know I can take rest stops when we’re traveling,” or, “A restaurant with gluten-free options is important for me,” are examples of using your voice to advocate for your needs without having to overshare. Lots of people have dietary restrictions and health needs these days. It takes practice, but every time you advocate for yourself, you gain strength and courage.
Engage with supports.
Although digestive disorders may cause us to want to seclude ourselves in our homes, this is not healthy. Reach out for support from trusted friends. Share your struggles with others via online or in person support groups, especially if you’re experiencing grief about receiving a diagnosis. Be a listening ear and source of comfort for others who are struggling with digestive disorders. Engage in hobbies. Continue living a full life. Modifications may be required, and life doesn’t have to stop.
While receiving a digestive disorder diagnosis calls for a change in how we live life, it does not have to end our enjoyment of it. By educating ourselves, developing a holistically healthy lifestyle, and keeping in touch with our support networks, digestive disorders can be managed as part of our experience without becoming the central theme of it.
If you have a digestive disease or deal with GI symptoms interrupting your daily life and would like more support, Avance Care is starting a free, quarterly support group for people with a variety of GI conditions. Join the support group email list by filling out the interest form below and someone will be in touch soon to get you started.