Cultivate Compassion to Reduce Stress, Anxiety, and IBS Symptoms

by | Apr 22, 2020 | Healing, Anxiety, How to, The Nervous System | 0 comments

Last week, I shared a blog and video acknowledging that Covid-19-related stress anxiety may be exacerbating your IBS symptoms. Right now, your body is not feeling safe because there is a threat in our external environment, and that threat then creates an internal threat, the threat of worsened symptoms. 

To reduce stress and anxiety, you must help your body to find simple, clever, yet effective ways to feel safe again, for just a few moments. Those few moments provide a well-needed break from the constant stress response your body has likely been experiencing. 

IBS is a function of layers of patterned stress responses, so, naturally, your IBS symptoms are worse right now. As a psychologist specializing in the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other functional GI disorders, I have a lot of experience in helping patients find practices that help to change those patterned stress responses. Today, I’m going to build on what we talked about last week and offer a specific strategy for feeling good right now instead of being stuck in the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that go along with being stressed and anxious.

A Suggested Practice for Cultivating Compassion

The following practice is intended to help you take incremental steps towards bringing your body from a place of high stress into greater ease and calm. If you’d rather hear this exercise than read it, you can find the video link below. 

Let’s get started.

Do your best in this moment to slow your body. If you can, sit down. If not, just pause while standing. If you’re sitting, feel your body in your seat. If you’re standing, feel your feet on the ground. Take a few moments to slow down and breathe. 

Now, I’d like to invite you to read the statements below and really take them in. Imagine you are metaphorically ingesting these statements, swallowing them down, and allowing them to be fully digested by your heart, your mind, and your body. Try to receive this information as whole-heartedly as you’d receive a hug from someone you love and who you know loves you. 

Here we go:

  • My body is not doing anything to try to cause me harm, pain, or suffering.
  • My body is actually doing its very best to protect me from harm in order to ensure my survival.
  • My Autonomic Nervous System is reacting to what it perceives are credible threats to me.
  • I am alive right now because I have an Autonomic Nervous System.
  • Thank you, Autonomic Nervous System and body, for working so hard to protect me. I am glad to have you always looking out for me.
  • I am doing everything I possibly can to protect myself from contracting Coronavirus, and that is all I can do right now. 

As you repeat these lines, give yourself permission to allow each statement to influence you in some way. Notice your body’s emotional and sensational reactions to each one. Consider: 

  • Are there parts of you that don’t want to, are afraid of, or are fighting taking in this message? Can you thank those parts of you that are scared of taking in this information and spend some time trying to understand what specifically feels threatening?
  • Are there some lines that you can take in readily and others that you can’t? Maybe work with the lines that you can take in, and ignore the rest for now. Then, continue to dialogue with yourself (and maybe someone else who knows you intimately and is calm and wise) about the ones that feel difficult to accept. 

Seek and Find Compassion for Your Body

The exercise I just walked you through is loosely a form of Metta meditation, a Buddhist mindfulness practice based on loving-kindness. Metta is all about cultivating compassion. By engaging in this simple mindfulness practice, you will cultivate compassion for your Autonomic Nervous System and what it is doing right now in the service of its benign intentions. Even just acknowledging that your Autonomic Nervous System has fundamentally benign intentions might be a beneficial shift towards greater compassion. Becoming more compassionate towards the part of your body working so hard to protect you will soften your body, unwinding the contraction–mental, physical, and emotional–that happens when we become stressed. 

Remember that if you have IBS, your body is used to being activated by stress. Therefore, your body is not capable of sustaining a huge shift from being highly stressed to very minimally stressed. That’s why gradual steps towards greater levels of calm and ease are essential.

Over time, finding compassion for your body will start to unravel the threat response, generating a little more ease and calm. As a regular practice, this often adds up to feeling a whole lot better over the long-term. If you have a seated meditation practice already, try using this either as a way of starting and/or ending your meditation or as the meditation itself. Or you can simply use this exercise as a stand-alone practice as many times a day as is helpful. If the statements don’t work for you exactly as I’ve phrased them, tweak them so they work better for you. 

To learn more, visit the Don’t Hate Your Guts website where you can sign up to have weekly blog posts and the video of the week sent straight to your inbox. You’ll also receive updates about the exciting webinar series I’m about to launch. You can watch this week’s video just below on the Don’t Hate Your Guts® YouTube Channel

Healing is a process. You know the destination. I’ve got the roadmap. 

Don’t hate your guts. Instead, discover how to heal your body.

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