Whenever Serena Ehrlich goes someplace new, she scouts out the location of the bathroom. That's because Ehrlich, 38, a Los Angeles-based salesperson for a commercial wire service, has ulcerative colitis. She developed the disease 12 years ago and has been in remission for the past three. Still, the old habit lingers. "Everyone who has ulcerative colitis will tell you that when you walk into a bookstore, a shop, or a restaurant, that's the one thing you want to know first. It's our rule of thumb."
First, it’s important to know that stress and anxiety don’t cause inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). But during times of physical or emotional stress, you may have a flare-up of UC symptoms, like more abdominal pain or diarrhea. Severe chronic stress can even lead to increased inflammation.
When you run into a stressful situation, your body gears up for a "fight or flight" response. It produces cytokines, proteins that stimulate the immune system to fight injury or infection – and trigger inflammation. Stress does not cause flare-ups in everyone with UC, but it does for many people.
1. Plan Ahead
You’re adjusting to many new things: a new home and school, living on your own, and taking control of your UC care. You can’t always avoid stress. But sticking to a regular schedule will help keep ulcerative colitis and stress levels under control:
Keep up with coursework so you don't fall behind. That will make the end of the semester less stressful and make it easier to catch up if you occasionally need to miss class.
Eat a sensible diet with regular meals, avoid problem foods, and drink plenty of water.
Don’t skip maintenance medications. It’s a common cause of flares. Find a system that works to remind you to take medications daily as directed.
Don't pull all-nighters. Get the sleep you need to feel refreshed each day. You may be more prone to fatigue-related to ulcerative colitis. Some of the medications you may take can cause fatigue, too.
Talk to your professors early in the semester so that you have a plan in place if you have a flare-up.
2. Create a Circle of Support
You may feel as if you're the only one on campus who’s coping with a chronic illness. But you aren’t. To find support:
See if your college has a support group for students with UC or IBD. If it doesn’t, think about starting one. Support groups give you a chance to talk to others with the same concerns and issues.
Contact the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) to find a support group near you. If there isn't a local group near campus, try an online group to see if that's a good fit.
Remember that managing a chronic disease is no easy task. If you feel like your illness is taking a toll and you're feeling depressed, get help from a counselor or therapist.