Let's Talk About Stomach Health & Mental Wellbeing
During Covid, I, like many other people, have found myself re-visiting the past a lot as a coping mechanism. From watching my favourite childhood films, listening to music I grew up with to sharing memories I made as a teenager with the people I am shielding with. While re-visiting the past is a nice exercise for my mental wellbeing in an unprecedented time, over time I started to realise something very important in relation to my mental wellbeing and stomach health. The more I revisited the past the more I realised that there was a time in my life when I didn’t constantly feel anxious about my stomach health. This was a wonderful period when my anxiety didn’t completely dictate my stomach health and vice versa. Looking back I remember there was a time when I wouldn’t have to Google map local toilets prior to going out just in case I urgently needed to use one. Similarly, there was a time when I wouldn’t have to pre-plan every outing to make sure that I’ve been able to go toilet beforehand. Whatever stability my stomach had come to a gradual end starting in 2014 when I started to experience severe anxiety, something that I’ve written about extensively.
Looking back the impact of anxiety on my stomach health has been immeasurable, it’s affected every part of my life. Although it makes me sad to finally admit that because I’ve denied it for so long, conversations with other people and research shows that I am not the only one to be suffering from stomach ill-health due to a mental health condition. This is why I felt it would be important to openly speak about this, even if it is a very personal subject that can create a lot of shame and awkwardness.
In a way, this article is dedicated to my younger self because I wish I had access to such information at the time. More importantly, I wish I had actively sought out help sooner.
Tracing My Journey With Anxiety & Stomach Health
The issues with my stomach health started gradually around 2014 when I first entered the job market fresh out of uni aged 23. Due to the sudden demands placed on me at the time in my job and life in general, I started to experience severe anxiety, all of which created a lot of issues for my mental wellbeing. It is during this period that I can remember a change starting to occur in my stomach health.
Research shows that our early 20’s can be a very volatile period. It is a period when we become more susceptible to the emergence of mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. The reason we are so susceptible to this in our early 20’s is because we experience a lot of significant social and economic change in our lives. As a result, a lot of young folks, such as myself, can develop mental health conditions such as severe anxiety. A by-product of this anxiety, for me, is having volatile stomach health. Conventionally named the ‘gut-brain’ connection in western health and medicine, there’s significant research that shows the link between our mind and our gut. Something I wish I knew back in 2014.
Back then I was so wound up by the overall anxiety symptoms I was suffering from that I paid very little attention to what was going on in my stomach. Ultimately, I did very little in actively look after my stomach health let alone myself.
Why Don’t We Talk About Our Stomach Health?
Over the years, as I started to become more gradually aware of my stomach ill-health as a result of anxiety, I continued this pattern of not recognising it as an issue, let alone actively seeking help. In the simplest sense, I did what many other folks do, I just ‘got on with it’ in silence. Research shows that this is a common attitude when it comes to stomach issues. For example, a YouGov survey found that 43% of participants have experienced stomach issues, however, 41% of the participants have never visited a GP to discuss their stomach issues. This figure harrowingly jumped to 61% for those aged 25-34.
One of the key reasons highlighted within the study as to why we don’t seek health for our stomach issues, despite all the problem we experience is because, in broad health terms, people tend to prioritise areas such as weight, teeth, sleep and heart ahead of their stomach. This happens even when nearly half of the UK population experiences some form of stomach ill-health. Stomach ill-health can range from abdominal pains/discomfort, diarrhoea, bloating, flatulence to constipation.
Men & Our Unwillingness To Seek Help
The attitude of not seeking out help for stomach issues is more common amongst those who have been socialised as men. Varying research shows that men tend to wait longer periods in comparison to other demographics before seeking out help for most of our issues, whether they’re physical, mental or both.
This particular phenomenon is highlighted in the study as one doctor states:
“This research shows that people really don’t pay enough attention to their digestive health and illustrates our concerns that people may not recognise or may ignore the symptoms of serious digestive disorders until it’s potentially too late. This may be particularly true for men, who appear to pay far less attention to their digestive health than women”.
For me personally, a key reason as to why I didn’t seek out help is because I felt so much shame about the situation. It is a shame I still feel to this day. It’s not a nice feeling knowing that you’re the one within your close circle who always causes delays due to last-minute urgency because you ‘have to go’. It’s also quite embarrassing being the person who sometimes can’t come out because my stomach is upset after an emotionally turbulent day.
It’s become a running joke with people close to me that I spend a lot of time in the toilet, way more than the average person. While comedy always helps me deal with the situation, it’s very emotionally exhausting having to navigate this on a daily basis. For this reason and more, it’s been quite positive for me to be at home during the lockdown as it’s meant that I don’t have to constantly worry and pre-plan every outing to ensure that there is a safe, clean and accessible public toilet nearby. Not that there ever is in case you're wondering.
The Lota Dilemma
While stomach problems are a universal issue, it is at the intersection of navigating them, especially outside of my home environment, that I’ve become aware of my own ‘othering’ within this experience. The key factor that changes the whole experience for racialised folks like me is the fact that we use lota's. For those unaware of what lota's are and their use (lol can’t believe I’m having to explain this), they are handheld vessels that contain water so that we can appropriately wash our behinds. While lota's provide cleanliness and hygiene that is un-matched, being a racialised minority amongst a white majority inadvertently creates a lot of anxiety for me because there have been countless times I’ve felt so self-conscious and ultimately anxious about having to carry a used plastic bottle to the toilet. This is especially true in a work setting when I spend around 8 hours a day 5 days a week with the same people.
This added layer to the experience in my view creates further anxiety because not only are you anxious about your stomach, but you’re also having to be hyper-vigilant about how to go about doing your daily function.
How have I improved things?
After years of denial and lack of acknowledgement, I am slowly working towards better stomach health, especially in relation to my anxiety. Generally speaking, having a sustained routine has helped me a lot in my stomach health management. Although it’s been a long journey of trial and error I’ve found a few things to be quite helpful. These things range from yoga (helps tons with digestion) to intermittent fasting (not eating for a window between 14-16 hours). Giving up gluten and diary has also helped tons. Similarly, given the gut-brain connection, meditating in the morning and in the night before going bed has actively allowed me to calm my mind and ultimately my stomach.
While it’s important for me to share my insights on what’s helped me, each body is unique, as are the underlying causes for what could be causing stomach issues. As such, if there is anything I would recommend to a reader, especially those in their early 20’s, please go see a doctor if you are experiencing stomach issues, let alone mental health issues. The earlier you seek help the better you’ll be in the long run, trust me.
Someone Who Wishes They Sought Help Earlier