How Can Self-Compassion Benefit People Living With IBS?
Last updated: May 2023
For people living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), day-to-day life can be a struggle. Eating a certain food can trigger symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Sometimes, symptoms arise out of the blue. This can derail your entire day’s plans. Living with IBS symptoms can also lead to isolation, anxiety, and depression.1
Emerging research shows that improving mental health can influence the microorganisms and bacteria that live in the digestive system (gut microbiota) in a positive way. This research suggests that having self-compassion may improve IBS symptoms.1
A 2019 study explored this mindfulness-based approach. It found that when people with IBS practiced self-compassion and acceptance, their IBS symptoms were greatly reduced. In fact, mindfulness-based approaches led to greater improvement in digestive symptoms compared with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).1
What is self-compassion?
Having self-compassion means holding space for empathy, acceptance, and whatever you are feeling in the moment. Rather than judging yourself for a particular thought, feeling, or action, you offer yourself understanding and kindness.1,2
Self-compassion is a fundamental component of mindfulness. Think of self-compassion as treating yourself as you would a close friend – as someone you care deeply about and would not want to hurt.2,3
The mind-gut connection
The mind-gut connection is powerful. The brain and gut interact in a way that still baffles researchers and scientists. Just like the brain, the gut has its own nervous system. It is called the enteric nervous system. It regulates digestion, movement of the muscles in the digestive tract (motility), and blood flow.4
There is a communication "highway" between the brain's central nervous system and the gut's enteric nervous system. These messages get passed back and forth all day long. When the brain is anxious and stressed, those messages get sent directly to the gut.4
Stress also releases chemicals that add to inflammation in the gut. When these messages of stress pass from the brain to the gut, it can lead to IBS symptoms like constipation, stomach pain, and diarrhea.4
Research also shows that some people with IBS have extra-sensitive nerve endings in their gut. This is called visceral sensitivity, which can lead to painful symptoms as well.1
How IBS affects mental health and well-being
With this brain-gut connection in mind, it stands to reason that the way you treat yourself can have a great impact on your gut health.
Take this scenario as an example: Your IBS symptoms cause you to cancel plans with friends. Rather than engaging in negative self-talk or criticism, you can offer yourself kindness and compassion. Accepting that you need to rest and take care of yourself may be exactly what you need in the moment.
Practicing self-compassion with IBS
Self-compassion is rooted in mindfulness. It can come in many forms. Mindfulness involves practicing non-judgmental compassion, which promotes acceptance of difficult situations. Mindfulness also helps you recognize and hold space for your emotions, without denying them. This can lead to faster recovery and ease symptoms.1,3
There are several mindfulness-based practices that can help with IBS symptoms:3
Full body scan
– Take a few moments and scan your body for any pain or discomfort. Ask yourself what you are feeling and label the emotion (anger, frustration, sadness, etc.). When you put feelings into words, it can send soothing chemicals to the brain. Take it one step further and ask: How can I comfort myself in this moment? What does my body need?
– This type of meditation comes from the Buddhist tradition and works to cultivate love and compassion for yourself and all beings.
Deep breathing exercises
– Full, diaphragmatic breathing can stimulate the body’s "rest and digest" mode.
Try this practice: Take 1 deep breath in through the nose for a count of 4 seconds. Exhale through the nose for 4 seconds, releasing all the air out of your lungs and belly. Repeat for 5 counts of deep inhales and exhales. You can do this before eating a meal, after a meal, or whenever you need to relax and de-stress.
Words of affirmation
– Repeating words of affirmation to yourself, such as "I am doing my best," or "I am strong" are acts of kindness. It can help soothe both the mind and the body.
Our shared human experience
Researchers are still working to understand the mind-gut connection and how our emotional well-being can impact IBS symptoms. Practicing self-compassion means accepting that we are all human and none of us are perfect.
Self-compassion and being mindful take practice. Be gentle with yourself and start small.
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