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Stress does not cause ulcerative colitis, but once you have the condition, stress can make it worse, just as it can with any chronic disease, says Deborah Proctor, M.D., professor and medical director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Yale University. To lighten your stress load:
- Exercise. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the release of endorphins, the natural feel-good chemicals in your brain. Repetitive physical movements such as walking, running, swimming laps, pedaling a bike or swinging a racket give your brain something easy to focus on and can help clear your head.
- Try mind-body movements. Certain exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, require you to breathe deeply, hold a particular position, and emphasize fluid, gentle movements that may not raise your heart rate, but can have direct, calming benefits. These exercises can be especially soothing for UC patients with arthritis, joint pain, bone weakness, or abdominal cramping, for whom high-impact movements like running are uncomfortable.
- Get some shut-eye. Getting enough sleep revitalizes you and builds up your immunity so that you're less likely to get sick if you do feel stressed. Try to go to bed and get up at about the same time every night, and allow yourself at least eight hours of sleep.
- Laugh it off. Watch your favorite 30 Rock episode, call up a friend and share a funny story whatever tickles your funny bone. Not only can laughter cheer you up, it may also have stress-reducing effects, lowering blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the immune system, according to researchers at Loma Linda University.
- Focus on your breathing. No time to de-stress? How about 19 seconds? That's all it takes to follow the breathing technique recommended by Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Sit in a comfortable position, close your mouth and inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of eight. You can repeat the exercise up to four times. Dr. Weil calls this type of breathing a "natural tranquilizer for the nervous system."
- Try progressive relaxation exercises, a method suggested by experts at Harvard Medical School in which you isolate certain muscles, tense them briefly and then relax them. Start by tensing and then relaxing your muscle groups one at a time, starting with your forehead muscles and working all the way down to your toes.
- Imagine. Guided imagery has been shown to lessen pain and reduce side effects of various drugs. Use a guided imagery recording to visualize soothing scenes, or just take five or 10 minutes to close your eyes, breathe deeply and picture a place that is serene and beautiful to you. Imagine what it smells like and feels like.