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Calm the fire within

What Is A Flare-Up?

A flare-up is a sudden intensification or outburst of hostile symptoms that indicate an illness is active. For people with chronic illnesses, flare-ups can affect different people in different ways, however, in most cases, it involves pain and consecutive bad days. Some people experience flare-ups that last a few minutes and others find themselves enduring flare-ups for months. Flare-ups for warriors living with IBD or IBS can take many different forms such as:

my flare ups – (graphic content)

In my personal experience with Ulcerative Colitis, my flare-ups have taken many forms. The scary part is that it takes those forms at the same time. I could be going about my day as normal when all of a sudden I feel a wave of dull pain come across my stomach. At this point, I usually just need a minute to compose myself and let the wave pass before getting back to my day. About 20 minutes later I get another wave.

This is the warning wave as I call it.

When the second wave comes I feel the need to retreat from wherever I am and find somewhere I can lay down or at least is close to a bathroom! I know I have anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes until that happens. Waiting for the third wave is the hardest part. You know it is coming and you know it is going to suck but all you can do is prepare. Ideally, I would be stretched out on a big comfortable bed in a dark room just steps away from a bathroom but that is not always the case. Sometimes I just sit quietly in the car staring out the window and other times I grip my office chair tightly and hide behind a fake smile.

When the third wave hits, I know I’m in the middle of it. I feel the most pain here and it stays for longer than the others. I find myself running to the bathroom to have a few bloody bowel movements and do my absolute best to not vomit. Every time I am on the toilet during a flare-up I have a nauseating battle with my stomach in that I have a 50/50 chance of throwing up while on the toilet. Yes, that means it would come out of both ends at the same time – which has happened multiple times. It is the worst.

The hardest part about throwing up during a flare is knowing that all of the water & nutrients you consumed for your body to heal are now being poured down the drain and you have to start all over again. Maintaining and gaining weight for chronic warriors is a constant battle so every calorie counts.

Nevertheless, sometimes I win that battle, sometimes I lose. The only I can do next is ride the wave out until it subsides. Usually, it looks like I am hunched over on the toilet trying to ‘tough it out’ while craving the chance to go back to normal. As a result, I lose some weight over the course of my flare-ups as well as become very fatigued.

What It Feels Like

Again, flare-ups are different for everyone they affect but my best analogy has always been with fire. During my flare-ups, the waves of pain feel like a large ball of fire is slowly making its way from my stomach through my intestines. Constantly pushing on the walls of my digestive tract as it makes its way down my body I can feel every crack and flame.

Other times it feels like Freddy Kruger himself is slowly twisting his hand into my stomach like he is winding up a model airplane. This type of pain is debilitating and almost always results in me trying to remain absolutely still and quiet. I do this because if I move or even speak, the pressure from my diaphragm, abs, or even lungs moving air around can set it off again. This back and forth can sometimes go on for several minutes at a time.

Screw you, Freddy…

Fortunately, the flare-up eventually subsides. The ball of fire slowly extinguishes and the twisting pain loosens. I begin to feel the cool air filling my lungs as I am able to take deeper breaths and relax all of the tension I was holding onto so tightly. Then, I thank my body for being stronger than the flare and do what I can to move on from it.

What To Do

There is something you can do about it! Yes, even you! Some of the best things I have found to use against your flare-ups are knowledge, support, and rest.

First and foremost, you must obtain knowledge of what might trigger your flare-ups. It could be certain foods, stressful situations, smoking, alcohol, sudden medication changes, antibiotics, or maybe something else entirely. The important point here is that you understand what your body is trying to tell you and how to avoid it by staying away from triggers.

Secondly, your support system is key. If you find yourself experiencing flare-ups while around people, it is extremely helpful to have someone with you who knows what’s up. They can recognize that you’re in pain, that you maybe can’t talk about it right now, and that you might need to spend a little extra time in the bathroom to go through the dang thing. Having a subtle, non-verbal signal can really help communicate to your support system that you are experiencing a flare and do not want to draw attention to it. Personally, I look over at my support person and drape my arm over my head (as if I am stretching it or something) which tells them:

“I am in pain and cannot talk about it right now. Give me a minute to compose myself and I’ll be fine soon. We should wrap this up and find a bathroom soon.”

It is especially helpful when traveling!

Lastly, you must rest. Provide your body with the environment to recover from the flare-up regardless of intensity. This could look like sitting down for a few minutes to just breathe and remind yourself that you’re going to be ok. It could also look like taking a power nap or just going to bed early. Rest is literally the best thing you can give your body after something like a flare-up and you will feel much better.

Always remember that the bad times never last and you will overcome them. Having a sense of understanding and a plan are your best weapons to ensure that you conquer your flare-up in the best way you can. You got this!

Don’t lose hope!


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