Central Oregon’s Kelly Jenkins talks about living with a stress-related chronic illness

There are a lot of things to like about Kelly Jenkins. She’s smart, kind, hard-working and an overall lovely person. As a 34-year-old who lives with Ulcerative Colitis (UC), an autoimmune disease directly tied to high stress levels, she’s become an advocate for others living with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and an expert in the mind-body health connection.

Kelly first recognized that something was wrong with her health in 2015. After battling a month-long sinus infection with three rounds of antibiotics, she was training for a 100-mile bike ride, buying her first house with her fiancé and planning a wedding while working full-time as communications coordinator for Redmond School District.

“Even though it was mostly happy stress, it really took a toll on my body. Less than a month after the wedding, I got very sick and was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis,” said Jenkins.

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic gastrointestinal disease with no cure. While there are medications to help manage the symptoms, which include diarrhea, mucus and blood in stool, fatigue and fever, UC can be debilitating and sometimes lead to life-threatening complications.

When I asked Jenkins if she was comfortable sharing her story with Mind Your Mind Central Oregon, she was 100 percent on board.

“Having a disease that’s very affected by stress has made mindfulness a huge part of my everyday life,” she said. “The gut-brain connection is so clear and I try to be very open and honest about it and encourage others to talk about it as well. I know people who’ve lived with my disease undiagnosed for years. They get so used to feeling bad that they normalize their symptoms. Bathroom issues are hard to talk about. That’s why I talk poop all day,” she said laughing.

One of the many things I like about Kelly Jenkins is that she’s not afraid to talk about poop!

Managing stress

To mind her mind, her body and her illness, Jenkins pays close attention to her stress levels. She regularly practices mindfulness, teaches yoga and is careful about setting boundaries. Having recently launched her own public relations business, she spends a lot of time on the computer. As an athlete who loves the outdoors, she strives to find balance by getting out on the trails, usually to hike or ride her mountain bike.

Learning when to “pump the brakes”

While exercise can be a great stress reliever, Jenkins also tries to recognize when her body needs complete rest.

“One thing that’s been challenging for me is knowing when to pump the brakes,” said Jenkins. “When I have a busy work week, I tone down my exercise. That’s what I need to prevent burnout. It’s not necessarily what I want to do, but I’m learning to give myself a little more grace and patience.”

Also, living in Bend among so many incredible athletes and options for outdoor fun, Jenkins sometimes struggles with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). She likes to ride with people who are better than her because it pushes her. Sometimes, she pushes a little too hard. This happened last year when she suffered a concussion after a fall mountain biking down Mt. Bachelor.

“I’ve learned that I need to go at my own pace and not try to keep up with others,” she said.

When I asked her how she knows when she needs to “pump the brakes”, she said “When I’m stressed, I become more emotional. I’m generally pretty even keeled so if I start to feel reactionary or like my emotions are driving my decisions, I know it’s time to slow down.”

She also takes notice when she’s feeling “wired” or caffeinated, buzzing before bedtime and unable to settle down.

“It’s up to us to listen to those signals, notice that something’s not right. I have really honest conversations with myself about the need to always be productive and moving,” she said. “Practicing moderation and stepping away from everything is what I sometimes need to heal.”

As an advocate for managing chronic illness, Jenkins has become a chronic illness warrior and has been named a top Ulcerative Colitis instagrammer. If you or someone you care about is managing chronic illness, check out Jenkins’ website and blogs at chronicallywilled.com and instagram account at instagram.com/notoriousibd

Thanks to Kelly Jenkins for sharing her story! Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

Linda Quon is Vice President and Director of Communication at Quon Design and Communication. Linda is working to promote everyday mental health awareness in partnership with Deschutes County Health Services and Central Oregon Health Council — which includes providers and health advocates from Crook, Jefferson, and Deschutes Counties. Linda was born and raised in Southern California and moved to Central Oregon with her husband and two children in 2005. Her mother lived with Schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder and her oldest brother also experienced bi-polar disorder. With support from family, friends, therapists and primary care providers, Linda has been navigating the world of mental illness most of her life — including her own struggles with mild anxiety and depression. Linda is proud to work as an advocate for mental health and a  blogger for Mind Your Mind Central Oregon.