There is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing IBS. Everybody and every body is unique, so it follows that your individual path to healing will be unique as well. But how do you start to determine what your unique body needs in order to heal?
As a psychologist specializing in the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other functional GI disorders, my aim is to help you find the answer to that question. My work occurs at the intersection of the nervous system, the digestive system, and the immune system. Because I was trained from both an eastern and western (or mind-body) perspective, I’m always thinking about how what we do will affect the whole body.
The Mind-Body (and Gut) Perspective
Approaching healing from IBS with a mind-body perspective is essential because from the body’s point of view there is no division of mind and body. The body is a single entity consisting of mind, heart, and gut. Therefore, what happens in one part of the body will ripple throughout the rest of it. Small shifts on any level—emotionally, mentally, physiologically, or relationally—can either contribute to or impede the potential healing of your gut.
Because of this ripple effect throughout the body, fixating on your digestive symptoms as a means of healing is often counterproductive. Even though you experience symptoms in your gut, those symptoms stem from your gut’s intimate relationship with not only the rest of your body but also your mental and emotional state. Digestion is not something we can consciously control, and putting effort into controlling something you don’t consciously control not only wastes your energy, it also increases your suffering.
Study and Learn About Your Present-Moment Experience
So how do you harness this mind-body perspective to determine what your body needs in order to heal? Well, as I discussed in my last blog, being willing to open up your awareness is a good start. Believe it or not, one of the best ways to start determining what your body needs in order to heal is just to start paying attention to it. Being aware of your automatic reactions to all kinds of stimuli—emotionally, sensationally, physiologically, and mentally— in order to learn more about yourself, your body, your emotional life, your relationships, and your behavior is valuable. Through this process, you learn something new.
Learning something new about yourself is a change, yes, but if you’re thinking that just increasing your awareness may not change much, you might be right. Still, any new insight about your body, relationships, or your life creates the potential for change. If you are now aware of something that you weren’t aware of before and that awareness reveals to you something that isn’t working particularly well in your life, you now have the opportunity to make it work better.
Consider, as an example, an increased awareness of your relationships with others. Perhaps you discover that you’re more at ease when you talk to or spend time with a certain person but get more tense with other people in your life. That is valuable knowledge! Rather than just accepting that you have to feel tense with certain people, try to learn from these interactions. Ask yourself:
- Can I observe rather than fear the tense feelings I experience with these people?
- What is happening mentally, emotionally, and sensationally right before or as I get tense?
- What are some ways I can generate more ease with people in whose presence I tend to experience tension in my body?
These are just examples of how you can open up your awareness as a means of finding ways to create more ease in your life. That ease is the key to promoting healing.
Cultivating this awareness can be challenging, which is why psychotherapy can be a great option for people seeking relief from IBS. A trusted psychotherapist can offer a safe space in which to expand your awareness of both self and other.
Observe Your Reactions to Reading This Blog Post
There are at least two skills involved in beginning to pay closer attention to your body. The first is simply increasing your awareness by learning to at least neutrally, if not compassionately, observe what is happening inside as you experience your day-to-day life. This means to observe without judging, criticizing, or shaming yourself.
That said, you can’t turn on that awareness 24-7. You can set an intention, though, that helps you to cultivate awareness throughout your day. The point is to shift your awareness from what’s happening on the outside— your to-do list, your conversations with others, your work responsibilities — to what’s happening inside. As a means of getting started with this practice, try registering an awareness of the stimuli you encounter as you engage in the activities you’ve chosen to help heal your IBS.
So, from now on, as you read blogs (this one included!), watch videos, or do anything with the intention of treating your IBS or whatever digestive issue you have, notice your specific reactions, both pleasant and unpleasant, especially if they are intense. When you pay attention to those reactions, see if you can be detailed in your observations. What exactly are you experiencing? What is the specific flavor of emotion you’re feeling? What is the sensation you’re experiencing? How would you articulate that? Try to be as specific as possible about what you’re feeling.
Describe Your Reactions to Reading this Blog Post
The second skill is learning to put those experiences into words using as much description as possible. You can practice this skill by keeping a healing journal. Log the different reactions you have as you’re watching my videos, as you’re reading this blog, as you’re reading books about healing from IBS, as you’re working with a practitioner who is trying to help you heal from IBS—essentially, as you’re doing anything related to your own healing. If you can’t take notes as you engage in these activities, take notes later and use the present moment to just pay attention to your reactions.
The kinds of natural, automatic reactions you have to what you’re reading, listening to, watching, or doing with the intention of healing can serve as springboards for your own healing. Each and every reaction you have gives you some information about how your nervous system, mind, and body work. That’s why it is so valuable to write them down.
Some people find that describing their reactions is difficult. In that case, just draw what you feel represents your reaction. Write words or images that come to mind. It doesn’t have to be logical or in narrative form. The idea is just to capture what happened—not what you thought your reactions would be but what they actually were.
Try Observing and Describing Your Reactions in Other Situations
If you find observing and describing your reactions to stimuli related to IBS treatment helpful, try doing the same thing at other times in your life, like after getting off phone calls with friends or family, while you’re watching a movie, or after you read the news. Try bringing your awareness to more moments in your life for the sake of getting more connected to your inner experience. Those automatic reactions will give you some insight into the way your Autonomic Nervous System works.
Note to self: opening up your awareness can be uncomfortable or painful. Ignorance is bliss, right? By making a point of noticing what you actually experience as a human being, you may discover some things about yourself that aren’t so becoming. This might not be the worst thing. No one is perfect, and accepting that you aren’t perfect—and don’t need to be—could be part of your healing.
Another important note on journaling: these are unadulterated reactions you’re jotting down, so make sure you keep your notes secure so that only those you really wish to share them with will have access.
Focus on What Is, Not Why
The moment you start asking yourself why—why am I feeling x, why am I having this sensation right now, why am I thinking about this, and so on—you’ll be heading down a mental road that takes you far, far away from the present moment. In that case, you will have essentially left the body and entered the head. In the head, you’re analyzing and processing. You’re using the left brain instead of the right brain, and the right brain is where you want to be when it comes to your healing.
See if you can neutrally observe the kinds of spontaneous sensations, emotions, thoughts, impulses, urges, images, or memories that arise, and then write them down without interpreting, explaining, or judging them. As why questions, assumptions, judgments, and interpretations come into your awareness, simply bracket them and set them aside. They aren’t going to be helpful when the purpose of this exercise is just to observe and describe.
As you take notes, shift the focus from why am I having this reaction to:
- What is my experience right now as I read, listen, watch, or do?
- What are all the different reactions I’m having right now?
- What is each reaction like emotionally, sensationally, mentally, and physiologically?
- What are the details about this reaction or set of reactions I am able to observe and describe right now?
Invoke curiosity as you focus on learning about what you experience as a human being, and you will over time discover new possibilities for generating more healing.
Healing is a journey. You know the destination, and I’ve got the roadmap. You don’t have to hate your guts. Instead, pay attention to what’s happening on the inside and learn something new. Discover how to heal your body.
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 also follow Don’t Hate Your Guts® on Facebook. Watch this week’s video below.