Psychology of the Gut


Your Second Brain

Did you know that you have a second brain in your gut? Your Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is often referred to as your body’s “second brain”. The ENS looks structurally like brain tissue, houses as many or more neurons than your spinal cord, and contains all of the same neurotransmitters (chemicals that facilitate the transmission of neuronal messages) that are contained in your “first brain”. Your gut also houses the majority of your body’s immune cells. Your digestive system, immune system, and nervous system converge in your gut, making it a hotbed of activity.

Imagine that your belly is a pre-verbal baby crying hysterically, clearly suffering. If you have a functional gastrointestinal problem, then this is the psychology of your gut.

Gut Feeling

Remember that old expression about “gut feeling”? It turns out to be true! The fact that you have a nervous system in your gut means that your gut is wired to feel. In fact, your gut feels with great sensitivity and perceptivity, though it can’t describe or explain what it’s feeling. This is really frustrating when you’re having uncomfortable digestive symptoms because you know something’s wrong with your gut, but you can’t get the information.—Well, you may actually be able to get the information, but it’s a somewhat circuitous route.

A Second Right Brain without a Left Brain

Think of your gut brain as a second right brain instead of a second left brain. While the left brain controls logic and language, the right brain senses and feels emotion. When you have an emotion, it’s your right brain that feels it and your left brain that attaches words to and investigates the emotion so that you can describe and explain it. Your gut brain is wired to experience feelings and sensations without words or thoughts.

The State of Your Gut

Imagine that your belly is a pre-verbal baby crying hysterically, clearly suffering. You have tried everything you can think of to soothe the baby and address the problem causing the suffering, but the baby is still crying. You truly have no idea why the baby is crying or how to fix the problem. This is the psychology of your gut if you have a functional gastrointestinal problem.

So what do you do when you are to soothe a crying baby?

Well, ideally, you try to embody “the good mother”. Presence, attentiveness, warmth, kindness, compassion, attunement, touch, gentleness, patience, and centeredness are the qualities that the quintessential good mother possesses. When the good mother is there, the baby feels the presence of someone who cares deeply for him or her. The good mother tries to stay grounded and calm all the while in order to convey to her baby that everything is going to be okay, an important non-verbal message for the baby to receive. The presence of the good mother alone can soothe the baby. The good mother is attuned to her baby and has come to know deeply her baby over time, so she is able to apply whatever tools she has learned help to soothe her baby when experiencing discomfort, pain, or startle. The good mother is able to observe non-judgmentally her baby’s behavior in order understand and attend to her baby’s needs.

Learning to Connect Deeply With Your Gut

Am I suggesting that you try to embody the qualities of the good mother with respect to your GI problems? I am, indeed! Relating to your belly as though you are a mother relating to her crying infant is the kind of compassionate relationship with your body that begets healing. The power of being compassionate towards the part of your body that’s expressing symptoms can be an integral part of your healing process.

When we are deeply present with and connected to ourselves like the good mother is present with and connected to her baby, then we can hear what our sensations or symptoms are communicating to us and perhaps make some sense of our symptoms. With greater awareness and less reactivity, we can appropriately respond to our needs, urges, wants, impulses, and wishes like the good mother responds to her crying baby.

Healing is a Process of Discovery

Healing is not so much about the end-goal of being attuned to your gut as it is about the process of learning how to attune and attend to yourself, to your body, and especially to your nervous system the way we all truly need to be attuned and attended to, with the qualities of “the good mother”.

Healing is not so much about the end-goal as it is about the process of learning how to attune and attend to yourself.

When you can embody the qualities of the good mother even amidst the pain or stress of symptoms, your nervous system can settle and find greater ease. In doing so, you give your nervous system the ability to unhook from the automatic, habitual patterns that generate unnecessary suffering. As we do this, we become more resilient and better equipped to deal with life’s many stressors. More importantly, we make space for the necessary suffering we must face in order to heal and recover.