The Mind-Body Impact on IBS
Last updated: May 2023
Most people living with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) know first-hand the connection with stress and their symptoms. IBS often flares during times of intense stress. Why does this occur? And what can we do to make it easier on ourselves?
Up until the 1800’s, doctors believed that emotions played a role in disease, but this concept was shelved as more was learned about our physical bodies and physical causes of disease, namely bacteria and toxins. Although there is now much research validating the mind-body connection, the knowledge and understanding is not widespread. 1
The Brain Gut
Researchers have found that a significant collection of nerves as well as the highest level of neurotransmitters – the chemical messengers that pass between nerve cells – is in the gut. It’s called the enteric nervous system, or brain-gut. This doesn’t mean that IBS is all “in your mind.” In fact, researchers have found that it is likely that what is happening in the intestines affects the activity and mood of the brain. While doctors have known that there is a connection between IBS and anxiety and depression, they assumed that the anxiety and/or depression caused IBS symptoms. Now, research is starting to show that the signals from the enteric nervous system influence the central nervous system. 2
The Power of Emotions
As a life coach, I work with many clients who downplay stuff or avoid their emotions. As someone living with IBS, I have to consistently recognize this pattern of avoiding emotions in myself and have found ways to allow emotions to have time and space for expression.
When we consistently keep a lid on our emotions – and it’s usually the unpleasant emotions we try to squash: anger, fear, sadness – that energy may be temporarily pushed down, but it doesn’t go away. It may come out in weird ways. Have you ever exploded in anger over a seemingly trivial thing, like for example, someone cutting you off in traffic? It’s likely that explosion was caused more by a pattern of not expressing anger than the traffic.
Emotions are frequently called energy in motion, hence “e-motion.” And when we try to keep them from moving, it can cause us to suffer in physical ways. I propose that it takes significantly more energy to keep a lid on those emotions than it does to let them run their course. (As an example, have you ever tried NOT to laugh when you’ve been at a serious function and something ridiculous happens?)
Giving Emotions Their Due
Allowing emotions expression doesn’t mean you express everything you’re feeling to everyone around you. I do believe that in order to be constructive, it’s important to work through the emotion first before communicating to others.
If you’ve been suppressing emotion for a long time, you may not even know what you’re feeling or how to name it. After pushing my emotions down and away for decades, I was so disconnected from my feelings that when I began life coach training in 2011, I felt numb. My teachers helped me reconnect by tuning into my body and its sensations. This is one of the easiest ways to begin, as well as give your emotions an opportunity to just be, without trying to change them (or name them).
- Just breathe. Give yourself a few minutes to relax in your chair, relax the muscles in your belly, and breathe deeply. Do at least three rounds of deep inhalations and exhalations. (Try it now.)
- Scan your body. Starting at your feet and working your way up through your body, begin noticing any sensation. Don’t overanalyze this: use terms that describe the physical sensation, like tightness, heaviness, tingling, throbbing. Spend some time especially noticing what your abdomen and chest are feeling, as many emotions are felt in the torso.
- Send your breath to those sensations. Without trying to change anything, imagine sending your inhalations to the area(s) you noticed have sensation. Allow the feeling to get as big as it needs to. Just be present with the sensation.
- Notice the messages. Ask yourself, what would feel good to do next? Is there a particular art form (music, painting, dance, movie), food, drink, or place that you’re in the mood for? If you can, give yourself what you’re craving. If you can’t in the moment, imagine having or doing what you’re craving. Our imaginations are powerful tools that can begin to shift the neurotransmitters in our brains.
I use this process regularly to maintain my mind-body health and find that it helps me allow my feelings to be what they are, honor what my body is experiencing, and acts as an invitation to self-care.
Which of the following symptoms of IBS do you experience most frequently?