Functional medical problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), chronic migraines, chronic back pain, and many other physiological problems may be physiological in expression but cannot be understood purely physically. The problem is a function of a complex interaction between your nervous system and some other system, organ, or part of your body.
Albert Einstein famously stated, “Problems cannot be solved on the level on which they were created.” In my experience, functional GI and non-GI problems can be resolved when there is a deepening of one’s understanding of the physiological symptoms, leading to new pathways for healing.
If you’re not sure what I mean by a functional medical problem or by a functional gastrointestinal problem, you can click the links above before continuing on to read. If you have never been seen by a physician for your symptoms, I encourage you to seek medical care before beginning any kind of treatment.
You may be disappointed and/or frustrated by being diagnosed with a functional medical problem because there isn’t a medication or surgery that can rid you of your symptoms for good, but there is good news: Your body is structurally sound and free of any life-threatening disease. This means that your body is physiologically capable of functioning normally even if it has not been behaving normally lately. You can heal.
Working with your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a great approach for healing functional medical problems because it holds the key to understanding parts of yourself that are just under the veil of every day waking consciousness. Working with your ANS is especially important if you have a functional GI problem like IBS. That is because an entire branch of the ANS responsible for regulating digestion is located in your gut. You essentially have a “second brain” in your gut. Getting to know your own ANS is the key to understanding the underlying mechanism of your functional medical problem.
The ANS is the part of your nervous system that operates without conscious control. This may sound like bad news, but it’s not. Just because you don’t have complete conscious control over your ANS doesn’t mean that you have no control. If you pay no attention to how your ANS functions, then it will automatically do what it has been trained over years of habitual functioning. Therefore, by deliberately, consciously paying attention to how your ANS functions, you gain insight into the nature of your symptoms and the power to effect change. Deepening your understanding of your functional medical symptoms thus means learning to pay attention to your ANS in a particular way across a variety of situations, contexts, and environments with and without different people over time.
One of the most important skills involved in this process of discovery is self-awareness. Another, which is less a skill and more a capacity, is mindfulness. Self-awareness and mindfulness are often used interchangeably but they actually have slightly different meanings.
Self-awareness refers to the capacity for looking within or self-reflecting and coming to know oneself better. Self-awareness is a cognitive process, a process of recognizing something, knowing it exists. If the goal is to know your ANS better, then increasing your self-awareness is a critical part of accomplishing this. That said, simply knowing more about yourself, however, does not in and of itself lead to change. In fact, self-awareness can be quite frustrating for people because as they begin to see more clearly the kinds of thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, urges, desires, needs, and beliefs that they have, they now have to face the reality of being more conscious some of the unpleasant experiences they’ve been having without the ability to stop them. Having a different experience, ultimately a more pleasant one, requires doing something different, and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
Translated from Sanskrit and derived from traditional Buddhist practices of meditation, the word mindfulness conveys a certain state of consciousness entered into by harnessing one’s attention in a particular way. Simply stated, mindfulness is the experience of being present with your experience of yourself in the here and now in a given moment.
Mindfulness is different from self-awareness in that it is fundamentally a whole-body state of being, or a state of consciousness that falls on the continuum of altered states of consciousness somewhere between ordinary waking consciousness and sleep. Being in a mindful state of consciousness feels qualitatively different from simply being cognitively aware of yourself. Think of self-awareness as a left-brain experience, while mindfulness is a right-brain experience.
Self-awareness, or knowing that there is something—a feeling, thought, sensation, urge, impulse, memory, etc.—that exists or is emerging from inside of you is important. Bringing mindfulness to that something by opening yourself psychologically and physiologically to emotionally, sensationally, and energetically experiencing that something with awareness in the moment is equally important. Awareness and sustained attention directs mindfulness. Mindfulness leads to deeper self- and other-awareness along with the ability to engage with the body’s natural, organic reactions generated by the ANS. Both self-awareness and a capacity to be mindful in a given moment give you some of the most important tools for deepening your understanding of your functional medical symptoms.
In addition to self-awareness and mindfulness, the third essential component of healing from a functional medical problem is feeling seen, heard, loved, and supported by people who genuinely care for you. Especially as you increase self-awareness and cultivate your capacity for mindfulness, you may and likely will encounter loneliness if you haven’t already. Having the support of family, friends, and great physicians or health practitioners is not just helpful; it is healing.
Feeling connected to others, especially in times of emotional or physical vulnerability,—pain, sickness, and weakness make us feel vulnerable—is exactly what we most need, even when we seek to hide or isolate ourselves. As human beings we are social creatures not meant to go through difficulty in life alone, yet it’s difficult, sometimes too difficult, to reach out to those who love us for support or help.
Perhaps you have reached out to those who love you only to feel unsupported anyway. That doesn’t mean you are not loved; it just means that there is relational healing that needs to happen before you can get the support you need. Relational healing is very much a part of healing from a functional medical problem.
To summarize, there are three essential components of healing from a functional medical problem: self-awareness, mindfulness, and connection with others. If you really distill it down, healing is a function of learning by connecting more deeply with yourself while you connect with others.
More on how to cultivate and work with each of these essential components of healing to come. This series on the essential elements of healing begins with self-awareness.