How Stress Relates to Pelvic Health

Pelvic pain stomachache medical healthcare concept. Hands of young woman on stomach as suffer from menstruation cramp, indigestion, gastrointestinal, diarrheas or female diseases problem

By Sue Sveum | Photography from Shutterstock
Sponsored by SSM Health

Fueled by information overload and everyday stressors, stress can affect every aspect of your life — from interpersonal relationships, physical health and emotional wellbeing, along with work and family life. And, it’s all too common. What you might not expect is that it can affect your pelvic health.

“Stress can intimately affect pelvic floor issues,”explains Dr. Temitope Rude, a pelvic health provider at SSM Health. “Two of the biggest ways stress interacts with pelvic health are urinary urgency and frequency — and pelvic pain.” She compares the impact of stress on pelvic floor muscles to the way stress causes a stiff neck or headache. Rather than a headache, pelvic muscle tension can cause back pain, abdominal pain, constipation, bladder symptoms and pain with walking, exercise or intercourse.

“Having pain and bladder symptoms can already be very stressful as they interfere with day-to-day activities,” says Rude. “But, it often becomes a vicious cycle that impacts your quality of life in many ways.” Initially, stress causes pain and incontinence — and then those pain and bladder issues create more stress.

To make matters worse, incontinence is heavily stigmatized as a sign of being weak or infirm — implying that you’re at fault for an inability to control your bladder. “These notions are deeply impactful and lead to many women feeling shame and responsibility for their incontinence,” says Rude, adding that on the flip side are the “whoops, shouldn’t laugh so hard!” jokes heard on TV or even among friends. “It’s become almost normalized as an annoyance that goes along with being a woman,” she says. “Either way, the outcome is people spending a lot of energy and emotional stress trying to hide — or manage — their incontinence.”

And pelvic floors muscles are affected by stress in other ways, as well. In addition to bladder issues, pelvic-related pain can be a huge stressor for women — often leading to loss of wellbeing and intimacy in relationships as well as day-to-day activities. And bowel symptoms, like constipation — or worse, fecal incontinence — can also cause great stress for women.

So, what can you do? Rude says simply recognizing that stress can cause pelvic health issues is the most important step in ending the cycle.

Online research can be a quick, private way to learn more about pelvic floor conditions — such as which food and drinks can worsen bladder symptoms, or techniques for meditation, stretching and yoga that are safe and simple to try on your own.

Friends, family and colleagues are another incredible resource. “It’s very helpful to hear firsthand from someone you know that these concerns are common,” says Rude. “Many patients find that their loved ones can give them insight into what to expect and how to advocate for themselves.”

But ultimately, talking about your concerns with a provider, or asking for a referral to a pelvic health specialist or physical therapist, is the best next step in managing pelvic health issues. “I’d encourage anyone experiencing these concerns to make an appointment to address them,” says Rude. “Don’t wait for your annual physical, and don’t be embarrassed — stress and pelvic health are definitely health issues your provider will be happy to help with.”

Left unchecked, chronic stress can snowball into a myriad of health conditions. Rude says taking time to prioritize your personal needs is critical to lowering stress levels. Even small, intentional changes can have an impact. As women, we often expect a lot of ourselves and can be our own biggest critic.

“In my opinion, the most important mindset shift is to be radically kind and gentle to yourself,” she says. “Focusing on the many things we do well and allowing space for our shortcomings, goes a long way to decreasing stress and opening ourselves up to help.”

SSM Health offers treatment options at its locations throughout Southern Wisconsin. To learn more visit ssmhealth.com/womenshealth.

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