Mental Health and Irritable Bowel Syndrome by Aniqa Khaliq

I’ve been working in Higher Education as a lecturer for 13 years now, and have thoroughly enjoyed every part of my journey from class teacher, to senior lecturer and senior fellow of the HEA. My love of mathematics, and researching the effectiveness of how mathematics was being taught in secondary schools, made me question how much of an impact I could make as a classroom teacher or as a Head of Department, and so when the opportunity arose I decided to move into teacher education and training. 

I have suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS-D) for just over 10 years now, which is a condition that affects the digestive system, causing stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea (IBS-D) and constipation (IBS-C). Despite this being a lifelong condition there is no cure and the exact cause of IBS is still unknown ( The two main triggers of IBS are food and stress, and for me the trigger was being trapped in a failing marriage with an abusive partner, and then moving abroad where things only became worse.

Nine months after the move abroad, I managed to return home, and thankfully had started working again as a university lecturer so found some solace in that. However, trying to keep my marriage from falling apart, and being in denial about the situation I had ended up in, took its toll on my health and my symptoms worsened. Foods had started to became triggers too, and I decided it was time to consult with my GP and find out what was going on, who immediately referred me to a specialist as my quality of life had deteriorated significantly.

As time went on I learnt what my trigger foods were, and managed to reduce the frequency of my IBS-D symptoms, I had separated and subsequently divorced by then too, and I finally felt in control of myself and my life again.

Panic Attacks Begin

Despite the trauma that was obviously present from events that had occurred, I had never considered myself as someone who had suffered from any mental health issues, which is why when I had my first panic attack just over 3 years ago I was in complete shock. 

I couldn’t understand why a sudden fear of leaving the house or travelling on public transport had crept up on me, and how debilitating that fear could be.

Looking back, I’m still not sure why the panic attack occurred.  I had minimal stresses in my life, I was in a loving relationship, my health was otherwise fine, I had travelled to a number of countries, and had no issues in carrying out my day to day responsibilities as a senior lecturer, nor had any issues with travelling to and from a range of schools across London. 

But that day, the day I stood there frozen staring at my front door, and had to force myself to get on the train and not to worry, didn’t sit right with me. 

Anxiety and panic suddenly arrived on my doorstep and formed a dark cloud in my life and followed me everywhere I went.  The continuous tightness in my chest would result in difficulties in breathing, and an overwhelming sense of fear would overtake me. I had constant fluctuations in body temperature, and felt my heart pounding in my throat, and on top of everything I suddenly felt as though my body was giving up on me. I was in constant fear of being stuck on public transport, and my brain started telling me that because I suffered with IBS-D I needed to make sure I was in easy access of public toilets, just in case.

The thought of having an ‘accident’ in public made me even more anxious, 

and as the days went on it was the fear of being stuck in the train, or being caught up in traffic, and the feeling of being trapped with no idea how long this situation would last that paralysed me. It was the fear of nobody understanding how difficult it suddenly had become to leave the house, and how each day had become such a struggle that the only time I felt free from this new burden was when I slept.

Driving didn’t lessen the panic or worries either, as I was afraid of ending up on the motorway, and the thought of traffic or roadworks caused sweat to trickle down my back.

Everything had started to irritate me at this point, and everything started to worsen my IBS symptoms. My husband’s aftershave was too strong, the neighbours’ music was too loud, the smell of food made me nauseous, the sudden changes in temperature made me queasy, and the constant “pinging” of my phone made me tense up. It didn’t matter what it was, but even someone talking too loudly was a trigger. 

The problem was, this only ever happened when I knew I had to leave soon to go somewhere. The moment a plan was made to leave the house I was constantly in and out of the bathroom, trying to ease the pains in my stomach and trying to convince myself it was just a short journey and I would be home soon. But it didn’t matter how many breathing exercises I tried, or how I tried to distract myself from my body’s reaction; I still felt my chest tightening and had no control over the waves of anxiety that would consume me.

It became easier just to say I wasn’t well and stay at home, as a few times whilst driving I had ended up in a line of traffic and the worry of it not moving fast enough resulted in a panic attack, triggering my urgency for the toilet, and I had to simply turn around and return home. This constant battle against myself was exhausting. 

Trying to convince my brain that I was safe and there was nothing to be afraid of just made me more anxious, and distracting myself often resulted in an internal dialogue where I felt the voices in my head were saying, “We know what you’re doing, we know you’re trying to distract yourself”.

Struggling and Seeking Support at Work

My work had started to suffer as a result, as I was in constant worry, whether I was in the office or assessing trainees in schools. If I sat too far away from the classroom door, my focus would shift and all I would be able to think about was ‘what if I need to leave?’. If I didn’t use the toilet before observing trainees’ lessons my temperature would constantly fluctuate throughout their teaching time and even though outwardly I sat there focussed and writing up their assessments, inwardly I was struggling to cope. I had started to spread out my school visits so I could have a non-travel days in between each one, allowing me the time to re-energise and build up my strength again, as such days would exhaust me. And each morning as a new day began, and the anxiety and panic would start to pollute my thoughts again, I would have to convince myself to leave the house again… and sometimes I managed to succeed, but other times I would turn around and go back home.

In the end I turned to my line manager and explained that I was struggling. He listened and reassured me that this wouldn’t impact my career or working as an academic, and we came up with a plan for me to do more face-to-face teaching at the university instead, and have a colleague carry out the school visits on my behalf. As I spoke to my team and my colleagues, and shared my IBS-D and mental health struggles I was overwhelmed with the amount of support I received. I was also surprised to hear about their stories and strategies they had used to cope with mental-health related issues, and was also relieved that I wasn’t alone in this, and there were people around me who understood. 

One colleague in particular suggested focussing on being more aware of all my senses when I felt anxious, and to think of five things I could see, hear, smell, touch and taste. He also told me that despite it feeling like a panic attack was overtaking me, they would normally subside after a couple of minutes, and that could be a positive focus that might also help.

This advice, alongside the changes in my work responsibilities made a positive difference to my working life, and I finally felt I could work again with a clear mind. My IBS-D symptoms hadn’t disappeared, nor had the anxiety and panic attacks, but they had reduced significantly within the workplace and I only had to manage them outside of work. 

What I soon realised, however, was that help this didn’t always go far enough as my life outside of work was still being significantly impacted by my symptoms, and the only way I would feel ‘safe’ was if I stayed home. In the end I made an appointment with my GP to see if we could look into trying to reduce the IBS-D symptoms in order to re-strengthen my bowels, as the fear of needing the toilet seemed to be the root cause of everything else and was often a trigger to the panic attacks I was having. But before I could start the medication he had prescribed, I found out I was pregnant. 

Pregnancy hormones and folic acid tablets were a blessing in disguise for my IBS-D and anxiety. It was as though all my symptoms had disappeared and I was suddenly free of the constant worry and pressures I had experienced over the last year or so. That black cloud that had been following me all this time had also disappeared, and I felt this was the first time in such a long time that my mind wasn’t foggy and I could enjoy living again, and that’s exactly what I did. 

A New Beginning?

After 6 months of maternity leave, I returned to work, and had assumed I was now “cured” of my anxiety and panic attacks, especially as my IBS-D was now in control again too. However, as the time for school visits fast approached, the black cloud returned. So for the second year running, I opted out of the responsibility of travelling for school visits and focussed on more teaching on campus instead. 

That academic year was somewhat different to the ones prior, in that there seemed to be an increased number of students who were also suffering from mental health issues and had disclosed that to us. Alongside this, there also happened to be a few students who had never experienced anxiety or panic attacks previously, and they were in tears on the phone to me not knowing how to navigate this and what to do.

I truly believe that the only reason why I could support and offer advice to these students in the short term, was because I had experienced the same thing very recently, and had accepted that this wasn’t a one off and wouldn’t just go away. 

Sharing my story with my students allowed them to see that just because they were struggling with mental health issues didn’t mean they couldn’t still be successful in the career paths they had chosen. It also showed them that it was okay to be true to yourself, and to seek out support that workplaces offer. In particular, it was important for me to reassure them that being honest with their co-workers and/or line managers about any mental health issues was just as important as informing employers about any physical health issues. I also emphasised that (most) managers would be willing to adapt responsibilities to allow them to still be successful in their work, whilst maintaining good mental health.

“Our New Normal”

When lockdown happened in March 2020, and our university transferred its teaching and training online, I suddenly felt free. I didn’t feel worried or anxious, as my home has always been my safe space, but instead I felt I could finally do my work on my terms and without the constant panic and worry about travelling. As a result, my IBS-D, anxiety and panic attacks disappeared. My breathing became noticeably regular again, and my mind was finally clear of all those voices that had clouded it. 

I’m not sure how things will change in the post-Covid era, and I hope that institutions realise that staff can work just as productively from their own homes as they can from the office. I have gained a significant amount of experience teaching online, with a large cohort of students, and have managed to ensure that sessions allow them to interact and discuss ideas in the same way they would have in the classroom. I have also had successful video meetings with our partner schools and trainee mentors, and know that this could also be embedded within our new normal too.

Despite the uncertainty of the future, I have learnt that prioritising my mental health and well-being, and being with my family and loved ones, is far more important than anything else.

This year I have returned to work on a part-time basis, and have also started counselling to try and locate the triggers of my IBS-D, anxiety and panic attacks. Alongside this, I am also in process of moving to a different area within the department that allow me more opportunity to use my expertise in teacher education in online and on-campus teaching, rather than having to carry out school visits once lockdown ends.  

I have been fortunate enough to have a line manager who believes that “Family and health will always come first”, but I know that this may not be the case for everyone. My experiences have taught me that until you value the importance of your health and well-being, nobody else will. And even if you have a manager who doesn’t understand this, there will always be a colleague, or a friend, or even staff from the well-being department or occupational health, who will be more than willing to listen and help support you in creating a more accessible work environment.

And finally: It’s taken me years to accept this, but past trauma has a way of creeping up on you when you least expect it to, and worst of all it does so in many different forms. My IBS symptoms may never completely go away, and I know my body has decided that anxiety and panic attacks are here to stay too. However, on the advice of someone very dear to me I started counselling and therapy 3 months ago, and have found that dealing with the underlying issues and trauma from my past has helped significantly in managing my health issues.  Overall I hope that sharing my story will help others realise that you can have a successful and enjoyable academic career despite managing chronic health issues.

Aniqa Khaliq is a Senior Lecturer at UEL, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her commitment to the teaching profession, and love of mathematics, has led her down the path of secondary teacher education, but it is her pastoral care and support that her trainees admire her for. Aniqa was born in East London, and was raised to value the importance of compassion and supporting those in need. She is currently writing her first book on her journey through an abusive marriage, divorce and the impact this had on her mental health and her faith. When she isn’t working, or writing, you can find her busy with home DIYs and home styling, and can f ollow her journey on Instagram @aniqas_attic and on her website