Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Other Functional Gastrointestinal (GI) Problems
Having a chronic gastrointestinal problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome is not a prison sentence but a call to action. Put yourself on a healing journey towards inner peace and self-discovery, and you might just figure out what your gut is trying to tell you…
You Have a Brain in Your Gut
Did you know that you have a “second brain” in your gut called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS)? The ENS is home to more nerve cells than you have in your spinal cord and all of the same neurotransmitters that are in your brain, explaining the powerful connection between brain and gut and giving new meaning to the phrase “gut feeling”. Your gastrointestinal symptoms are not all in your head! The ENS is one component of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), also known as the visceral nervous system, which regulates functions that are mostly not within our conscious control such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, salivation, perspiration, pupil dilation, urination, and sexual arousal. While mostly not within our conscious control, these functions are not completely out of our control either; we have the ability to influence them by making certain conscious decisions. For example, by deliberately slowing down our breathing, we can slow down our heart rate.
Work With, Not Against, the Nervous System
Research has shown that effective treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) includes psychotherapy. More recent research has demonstrated that mindfulness practices also reduce symptoms of IBS. While we do not understand the exact mechanics of how psychotherapy and mindfulness work on the nervous system, we do know that by shifting the way your nervous system functions, you can shift the way your digestive system functions.
When you have a functional gastrointestinal problem, your digestive system medically appears to be working okay, but your symptoms say otherwise, making it hard to believe that your body is healthy. It is incredibly frustrating when there is neither a clear-cut cause nor a cure for the digestive problem, especially after being seen by a gastroenterologist. Medication helps, sometimes quite a bit, but it doesn’t necessarily stop the symptoms from happening. And making matters worse, psychological symptoms like depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and fear often accompany chronic physical conditions.
Trying to “control your symptoms” sets you up to be at war with your symptoms and therefore your body, fighting a losing battle. If you had full conscious control of your digestive system, then you would be feeling better by now. What settles your nervous system is inner peace, which is possible only once you stop the war. As your nervous system relaxes, your mind becomes clearer, you become more energetic, and normal digestion resumes. By pursuing inner peace, you establish a clear conscious intent for your actions that promotes both physiological and psychological symptom reduction.
Therapy is collaborative and incorporates talk and experiential therapy. With guidance, support, and encouragement, you learn how to work directly with, not against, your nervous system. As your nervous system downshifts and you start feeling better mentally, emotionally, and physically, your capacity for insight increases. Insight is the process of having an “aha experience”, the kind of experience that unlocks the door to a deeper-level understanding. With openness, curiosity, and compassion, it is possible to attain such insight into your symptoms that you learn how to stop them from happening.
Making the Decision to See a Psychologist
Being referred to a psychologist by your gastroenterologist is not an insult. It does not mean that your symptoms are “all in your head”, that you’re crazy, or that you have a mental illness. If you are referred to a psychologist for help with a digestive issue that has not been resolved through medical intervention, be grateful that your physician cares enough about you to suggest a treatment method that has proven effective.
Reaching out for help from a psychologist is no indication of weakness or frailty. Rather, it’s a sign of strength, courage, and hope. It is a demonstration of your wish to heal. Psychotherapy is not a last resort unless you wait to make your first appointment.
To start healing today, click here.
To read more on this topic, please see Dr. Franklin’s article “Don’t Hate Your Guts! Discover How to Heal Your IBS” or visit www.donthateyourguts.com, Dr. Franklin’s website dedicated specifically to healing from IBS and other Functional Medical/GI Problems.