I was 12 or 13 years old so just about when I hit puberty that I started to get irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, but I wasn’t diagnosed at that stage—instead I got diagnosed as dairy or lactose intolerant. As I was going through my teenage years, my mum noticed that whenever I got stressed or upset, I’d get stomach issues and complain about a sore tummy or bloating, so she was actually the one who picked up on that connection. At the time, I don’t think it was spoken about nearly as much as it is now and not much was done about it.
It’s something that, from being a teenager, I realised there was a link between my symptoms and mental health; I’ve always struggled with anxiety and I know that when I am anxious, I definitely notice a difference in the way my stomach reacts. One way it has really impacted me is that I’m a pilates instructor and when I’m having a serious upswing in IBS where I’m particularly bloated or in abdominal pain, I struggle because I find that I can’t connect my abdominals which is so important in pilates.
A really big part of pilates is the mind-body connection. There’s something about 45 minutes to an hour on the mat or reformer machine where you’re so focused on your body that it takes away all the other things that your mind is stressing about. You end up thinking, “Am I connecting that muscle? Am I breathing correctly?” Breath is such an important part of it.
I initially did pilates because I kept hurting my back playing netball and a physio suggested some strengthening for my core. I found that the more I was doing it, the better I was getting in my overall health, both mental and physical, while strengthening my back. I ended up getting qualified and teaching it. For me, there’s so much more to it than the physical benefit. I’ve personally found that pilates connects you to your breath with movement. If you’re a mouth breather, then your belly is expanding and contracting but you’re not breathing into your diaphragm and taking the air into your lungs as much as when you’re breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, so pilates is like rewiring the brain to breathe differently, which in turn benefits your organs.
If I know I’m starting to get quite stressed and anxious, I cut alcohol intake and try to minimize time on social media—all those external stressors which can have an impact on my mental health—and physically, I’ll minimize my high-impact high-stress exercise and bring it back down to try to centre myself with some slower pilates or yoga, and go for long walks to try to clear my head.
If I’m really bloated, I dress differently too. I think about the way I look a lot more as I’m conscious of feeling bloated and don’t want to wear anything too tight. One of my friends is five months pregnant and she sent me a photo of herself the other week, to which I sent one back saying “I look like I’m five months pregnant as well!” At some points, it actually looks like I am.
I’ve done the low-FODMAP elimination diet previously and I know that I can’t tolerate lactose and dairy and have to be careful with my fructose intake and a few of the other low-FODMAPS, so I eliminate or reduce down certain foods. I can’t eat much garlic or onion because I’ll really react. When I’m feeling okay, I’m less conscious, but when I’m starting to flare up, that’s when I have to analyse what I’ve been eating and what’s going on in my life that I could be stressed about so I can reign it in and start to feel better in a few weeks’ time.
The hardest part is that you don’t know when you’re going to react to something; it’s the unpredictability of it. I’ll be fine and then all of a sudden, I’ll wake up and be in pain and bloated and will have to go back over everything to try to find out what caused it. At its worst, I feel so full, so bloated, and my belly swells right from my pubic bone up to the bottom of my ribs like a balloon. If I’m wearing leggings or something quite tight, I can feel that pressure and it’s really uncomfortable.
I use the Manosh University low FODMAP diet app. It lists out all the different foods that can affect people with IBS, and gives you a really good understanding of the amounts you can have per day to warn you that if you go over then you might start to get a flare-up. Whenever I’m starting to feel like I’m getting bloated and experiencing IBS symptoms, I check back in with the app and use the food journal where you can note your symptoms and start doing an elimination and reintroduction, which is an extreme diet but the most beneficial way I’ve found to understand what foods I’m reacting to. It has been super helpful over the years.
If you struggle with IBS, you just need to realise that it’s not going to be forever and it’s manageable. When you start to get really stressed about it and self-conscious, it doesn’t help the situation at all. Taking a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth helps ease the tummy and low-impact exercise can help you connect with and appreciate your body, rather than hating it for what it's going through. I think the angrier we get, the more uncomfortable we are and then symptoms worsen. I’d recommend trying to become attuned with yourself a little bit more.
It’s also about finding something that works for you. Social media is brilliant in so many ways but there’s so much stuff out there that isn’t beneficial for everybody and what works for one person might not work for another person because our bodies are so different. It’s a trial and error process in terms of your own mental and physical health. Give yourself space and time to work out what works for you rather than putting pressure on yourself as that’s never going to help in the long run.