A functional medical/gastrointestinal problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), cyclic vomiting, rumination (the digestive kind), regurgitation, or chronic pain represents a tangled web of dysfunction. Physiological symptoms associated with a functional medical or gastrointestinal problem are clearly happening within your body yet cannot be understood purely physically. When you have a functional medical problem (and anxiety and/or panic), you don’t actually have two distinct problems. You really only have one problem: a dysregulated nervous system and body. Let’s focus on how to untangle the web of dysfunction.

Level Up Your Approach

Healing your functional medical problem occurs by deepening your level of understanding. Albert Einstein famously said, “Problems cannot be solved on the level on which they were created.” The level of thinking, feeling, sensing, behaving, connecting, and relating at which your body generated the physiological symptoms, anxiety, or panic you have been experiencing is the level at which your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) functions.

Your ANS is pretty darn clever, and it functions without your conscious control and often without your conscious awareness. That is how you have stayed alive as long as you have. To heal you need to level up from your ANS by increasing your awareness over time about the way your ANS function across a wide variety of situations, contexts, and especially people.

If you were playing a game against a sharp opponent, it might be prudent to study your opponent’s behavior and try to understand how your opponent thinks. Likewise, to heal you must study and learn everything you can about not just the ANS but your own unique ANS. And then, you can use that information to outsmart your ANS.

Healing Requires a Change

Increasing your awareness is going to help you to understand how to help your nervous system and body to make a profound shift from a more dysregulated state to a more regulated state. Actually making the shift is a whole other ball of wax. Healing requires some kind of change. You have to be willing to do something different. Increasing your awareness while doing nothing different is highly frustrating; I don’t recommend it.

The overall strategy here is to increase your awareness a little bit in a specific way and then use the information you gain to help generate an intervention for yourself. Repeat the intervention many times over a short period of time, then use your awareness to track what happens. As you track how that one little shift affects you, you learn something. Then you take what you’ve learned and build upon it by again increasing your awareness a little bit in a specific way, the next way that feels meaningful, and then generate another intervention for yourself…You keep doing this over time, and you will have made a huge difference in a sustainable way.

Focus on Shaping Over Time

Shaping is a helpful way of learning when it comes to making big changes. Shaping is a breaking down of processes down into very manageable chunks and then learning, practicing, and becoming competent at one new behavior before moving on to learning the next one. This is how we best accomplish complex tasks.

Functional medical problems usually manifest after years of patterning, even if your most acute symptoms have only been happening for weeks or months. Healing is a longer term process that is going to happen gradually by taking one baby step at a time.

Your ANS does what it does without needing your conscious involvement. Left its own devices, your ANS will continue to do what it has done in the patterned ways it has learned. Because your ANS is just doing what it knows how to do and will continue to do what it knows how to do, you are not going to be able to cold-turkey stop it from doing what it knows how to do. Expecting a quick fix for your IBS or migraines or chronic pain would be expecting your body to change drastically overnight. It’s unrealistic.

Don’t Focus on Stopping What You Can’t Stop Right Now

Your symptoms are not something to necessarily stop or block from happening, although it is completely understandable and normal to have the urge or desire to. Chronic physiological pain, discomfort, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, bloating, and gas are awfully unpleasant. Anxiety doesn’t feel good. Panic attacks feel even worse. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t strive to bring about a cessation of your symptoms, psychological and physiological. Quite the opposite, I’m suggesting you work on bringing about cessation of your symptoms but not by focusing on stopping, blocking, controlling, or fighting your symptoms. (I realize that’s counterintuitive.)

Putting your energy and effort into consciously trying to stop your body from doing what it’s already been doing is not likely to be effective. If it were an effective approach, you would have been able to stop your symptoms by now.

Seeking Control of Symptoms Is a Zero-Sum Game Leading to Greater Problems

If your whole mission is to stop or control your symptoms, you will make yourself feel worse. Because you did not consciously create your symptoms, you are not able to consciously stop them. Your symptoms began with some kind of patterned stress response that you may not even remember having ever happened because it happened beneath the veil of consciousness. They are a function of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

If you are focused, or worse, fixated, on trying to stop or control your physiological or psychological symptoms, you set up a zero-sum game with your body. You win if you get your symptoms under control. You lose if you don’t get them under control. You feel good, perhaps proud, elated, or excited—by the way, excitement is a form of Sympathetic Nervous System arousal that can further fuel the fire of anxiety—when you feel you have conquered your symptoms. But remember, what goes up must come down. When your symptoms return, and unfortunately, they will return because that’s the nature of functional medical problems—you will not feel good. If you felt like a winner before, how do you think will feel now? You might feel defeated. You might have a multitude of unpleasant feelings and thoughts, and the more you get entrenched in this pattern of thinking and feeling, the further down the path towards stress, anxiety, hopelessness, and depression you go. And then the worse your physiological symptoms will be. This is not a path that leads to healing; this is what you call a roller coaster ride!

The zero-sum game and the roller coaster ride it puts you on further activate the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is the last thing you need. If you have functional medical problem, then your Sympathetic Nervous System is already activated beyond a level that your body can manage. What you need is to feel more at ease.

Consciously Try to Control What You Can

As I have said, your functional medical problem represents a tangled web of dysfunction. You only have limited control over how that web functions. Symptoms are unpleasant and take energy to manage. Don’t waste the energy you have futilely trying to stop, control, or fight your symptoms. Focus your attention on effecting the parts of the web that you can actually control or influence; a shift in one facet of the web is going to have a ripple effect on the whole web.

Stay tuned. The next blog post is going to give some things you can do that will have a ripple effect on the whole web.