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. This blog series presents you with an outline for untangling the web of dysfunction.
How you set yourself up for healing is as important as what you do to heal. Every step of the way, how you approach and do the things to generate relief and healing for yourself is going to play a role in either facilitating or hampering your efforts. In the last blog post, I wrote about the kind of attitude and approach you need to have in order to heal. If you haven’t yet read Part 1 in this series, click here. Set yourself up to succeed by cultivating an overall open and receptive approach to whatever you do that is intended to help you to feel better.
In this blog post I’m going to walk you through some of the things you can do to start regulating your nervous system and healing your body. While I’m a psychologist specializing in the treatment of functional medical/gastrointestinal problems and the regulation of the nervous system, I’m not an expert on your nervous system. You are the expert on your nervous system. If you don’t feel like it, then work towards becoming an expert on your own nervous system.
Promote Overall Ease
The general goal is to promote greater overall ease of the mind, body, heart, and spirit by shaping over time. Bringing even a little more ease into your body will have some kind of ripple effect on the web. Your body will need time to integrate and adjust to any small shifts in the web of dysfunction. Think baby steps.
What To Do to Generate Greater Ease
I’ve shared a great deal about the how of healing or how to engage in the activities that are likely to promote healing. Now let’s get into the what of healing. What are you going to do to promote healing? Below is a list of things you can do.
Each of the things on the following list potentially involves many steps. Break each one up into as many baby steps and take as much time—and I mean that—as your nervous system needs in order to work your way through each one. You will see that many of the things on this to-do list overlap such that as you work on one, you may actually unlock several doors to unraveling the web of dysfunction.
Start with one thing that appeals to you in some way and feels like a little bit of a challenge but not daunting. These things are listed in an order that may be helpful, but start where it feels right for you to start. The order is less important than you following your own lead. If you are already practicing some of these things or have in the past, consider examining and perhaps tweaking how you are practicing or could practice these things to make sure you are doing so in such a way that most benefits your nervous system.
10 Things To Do to Unravel the Tangled Web of Dysfunction of IBS and Other Functional Medical/Gastrointestinal Problems
- Stimulate the vagus nerve regularly by engaging in relaxing, pleasurable activities. Engaging in relaxing, pleasurable activities feels good. When we truly feel good, our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. Your parasympathetic nervous system is housed on your vagus nerve, which connects your brain to your gut and to all of your vital organs. Ease will come naturally from engaging regularly in the activities that feel good, especially when you do them with people with whom you feel connected, comfortable, and good. To learn more about stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system/vagus nerve, click on the following links: Why you should care about your vagus nerve and Turn on your vagus nerve with pleasure.
- Cultivate a more empathic, compassionate attitude and spirit towards your symptoms and body. Practicing self-validation, daily gratitude, and loving-kindness meditation are great ways to shift your relationship with your whole self. Many recent research studies have demonstrated the powerful beneficial effects of self-compassion and gratitude on people’s health and well-being. Your challenge when you have a functional medical or gastrointestinal problem is learning how to practice these things when you are not feeling well. That doesn’t come naturally or easy. Read more here.
- Work towards radical acceptance of your symptoms as they are, your whole body as it functions right now, and all of the “I don’t knows” that exist. If you don’t understand why your anxiety and physiological symptoms are happening, then work towards being at peace with not knowing why they are happening. That doesn’t mean that you will never know. It just means that right now you don’t know. And the sooner you can accept this reality, the sooner you can stop frantically searching for answers and find a little more ease. Radical acceptance is a natural progression of cultivating mindfulness and compassion. Focus on increasing your capacity to practice mindfulness and compassion every day as often as possible, and you will find yourself having greater ease accepting things as they are, even the frustrating I don’t knows.
- Turn toward, not away from the people who love you, share what you experience, and if necessary, teach them how to be more supportive of your experience. Work on healing any relational issues, current and past, that may be driving some of the sympathetic nervous system activation. Maintain and perhaps deepen your connection with others. Even if you aren’t able to participate in certain activities the way you would like to because of your symptoms, spend time with others instead of isolating yourself. Psychotherapy can be really helpful with these kinds of matters, either individual, couples, or family therapy depending on your needs. Read more about the role of relationships in generating, perpetuating, and healing from functional medical problems.
- Understand how the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) works, including Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. You don’t need to pursue a PhD in neuroscience to gain a sufficient understanding of the ANS. You only need to devote a little bit time to read some material and watch some videos. Here are some links to get you started: A short video on the ANS. A short video on the polyvagal theory. Click here to read about the Nervous System and follow links to take you to more pages. You can also read more of my blog posts on the ANS by clicking that category on the right of this page.
- Increase global self-awareness—awareness of your thoughts, sensations, emotions, motivations, needs, wants, urges, and impulses. You can’t notice all of these things all the time, but try increasing awareness of the parts of yourself that don’t normally or ever get your attention. One way is by practicing the check-in exercise. I did a whole blog series some months ago on how to increase global self-awareness. Click here to start reading that series.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness skills have been derived from ancient meditative practices. A mindfulness meditation practice is a great way to cultivate a number of important skills that will serve you well on your healing journey, including generating focus, self-awareness, self-compassion, radical acceptance, presence, and the ability to direct your attention. Once you have some practice with mindfulness meditation, you’ll want to incorporate mindfulness skills into your day-to-day life. That is a great way to untangle the web of dysfunction. Click here to learn more about mindfulness.
- Study and learn about how your specific autonomic nervous system works and interacts with your symptoms. This requires a real slowing down of your pace to be able to bring mindful awareness to your phenomenological (moment-by-moment) experience of whatever you’re doing at the time you choose to study your ANS. Choose those moments wisely. By cultivating greater self-awareness and mindfulness skills, you will find it easier to recognize the patterns of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that promote the unpleasant symptoms, physiological and psychological, that you have. Bring awareness to automatic reactions, pleasant and unpleasant, to all kinds of stimuli as they happen. You are not going to stop your ANS from having these reactions but if you can notice them, you can work more consciously with them to promote greater ease. More on this here.
- Do your inner work. Anything the body has not been able to consciously feel, be with, or move through only generates more suffering. Free your nervous system from this kind of psychological material by finding the support you need—family members, friends, or a good therapist—to help you navigate through it. Resolve unresolved psychological or relational issues that generate suffering in your life. Face difficulty that you’ve been staving off facing. Grieve unprocessed grief. Process unprocessed trauma. Talk about things you’ve been avoiding discussing with someone who will understand your perspective, and maybe that begins with talking about what it is you fear that drives the avoidance. Feel the emotions that you’ve not been wanting to feel. The only way out of emotional pain is through it. Make the time and space to let yourself go through it consciously with support, not by yourself. Don’t work through all of these things all at once, but do start taking baby steps through any and all such psychological material that is generating stress in your nervous system. A psychotherapist can be really helpful with this kind of stuff. So can journaling.
- Make wiser decisions. As you learn more about yourself and find greater ease, work towards making more conscious, deliberate decisions that put your nervous system and body’s needs first. Work toward getting off autopilot, or making decisions without conscious awareness that lead down patterned neural pathways that lead to known outcomes. Make more decisions in your day-to-day life based on what’s likeliest to lead to the kind of healing you seek. Increasing self-awareness and cultivating mindfulness and using these skills in your day-to-day life will help you to make wiser decisions.
More on how to work unraveling the tangled web of dysfunction soon. Stay tuned. Or better yet, scroll down to the bottom of this page to subscribe to my blog, and you will receive blog posts as soon as they are published.