We are biologically predisposed to be alarmed when we feel something painful or unusual in our body, especially when it's new. This is meant to protect us from harm. If you accidentally put your hand over a flame, that natural alarm activates a signal in your brain to pull your hand away as quickly as possible. You don't just watch it. If you suddenly notice pain or pressure in your chest with pain radiating down your left arm, you should not simply make room for that sensation. Instead, start calling 911! Similarly, if you experience new abdominal symptoms of pain, pressure, bloating, and diarrhea and have not seen a physician, you should definitely call now for an appointment.
However, if your symptoms have become chronic — and you have already been medically examined and tested — then the alarm function is not needed. Calmly observing those sensations helps to short-circuit the primitive brain.
Why Fighting Symptoms Doesn't Work
When you go on the offensive and try to fight your symptoms, it only makes them stronger. Try this: whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. What happens? The harder you try not to think of it, the elephant's image becomes even more prominent.
That's exactly what happens when you try the same game with a more emotionally charged topic, your reactions become all the more amplified and disturbing. The harder you try to not think about the symptom, the more powerful the image. And the more powerful the image, the more likely you are to assign emotional value to it. Your body then responds automatically, unleashing multiple reactions, including the release of stress hormones and other factors that perpetuate or worsen gastrointestinal distress.
Say you get a burning pain in your upper abdomen every time you eat pizza. It's nothing new — a chronic problem. You've seen your doctor to rule out physical pathology. As you feel that all too frequent sensation, your body sends out a cascade of emotional and physiological processes in response.
First, your sympathetic nervous system shouts out for the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline (also called epinephrine) and cortisol as your primitive limbic brain mistakenly encodes the pain as a threat. Because emotions often express themselves in physical ways, when you then try to not feel this unwanted burning pain, you instinctively tighten the muscles and other tissue in the area where it hurts — and other areas of your body as well, perhaps far removed from the source of the pain. All of this makes the pain worse, sometimes even spreading to other parts of the body.
At the same time, conditioned learning occurs in your limbic brain; the next time you eat pizza and get that familiar burning pain, you're just a little more likely to automatically react with anxiety, anger, frustration, or despair. It's a difficult cycle, one that increases your suffering.
Avoidance Increases Anxiety
In your body's understanding, the twinge of pain has taken on a whole new meaning. Instead of merely being useful information, this sensation has become mislabeled as a serious danger to be avoided. Yet this false threat has the power to take away simple everyday pleasures like pizza parties.
Susan was learning how to go spelunking in a practice cave with narrow, hard-to-navigate crawl spaces. At one point, she got stuck in a particularly narrow space and panicked. "Oh myGod, I'm stuck," she shrieked. "No, you're not," called back her instructor. "Just relax, Susan. You are never stuck. If you tense up, your body will naturally get bigger and you'll be even more stuck. If you relax, your muscles will go loose and your body will naturally find a way out." Tensing and resisting actually make distress worse!
Learning to Listen
Let's do a simple exercise to prepare you for listening to your gut. At this stage, don't worry about interpreting symptoms. In this exercise, you are going to observe your gut sensation and not judge or fight it.
The next time you notice a gastric symptom (gas, bloating, constipation, gurgling, churning, and so on), take one slow breath every three seconds. Allow your breathing to become easy, relaxed, and calm. Then mentally scan your gut.
When I get this sensation, what is the thought I become aware of?
What is the emotion I begin to feel?
What is the sense I have of myself at this moment?
As you learn how to notice and respond to your gut's messages, you will become less alarmed and upset by your gut's sensations. Instead, you will begin to befriend them.
You Can't Change It If You Don't See or Feel It
It's human to avoid anything painful or upsetting. No wonder Prilosec sells so well — it's much easier to shut down gut communication altogether than to listen to it. Millions try to avoid their gut sensations; many others just feel a sense of defeat and hopelessness. Feeling anxiety, frustration, or worry in reaction to a gut symptom need not be judged. If you attach an emotional value to this sensation, don't fight it; just notice it.
These sensations are important forms of communication, and we need to listen. Nobody appreciates it when they don't feel heard or understood. After all, many clinical studies have shown that the act of being listened to is one of the most important aspects of the healing encounter between doctor and patient. So it stands to reason that it's also important that you learn to listen to yourself.
©2013. Gregory Plotnikoff & Mark Weisberg. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
Trust Your Gut: Get Lasting Healing from IBS and Other Chronic Digestive Problems Without Drugs
by Gregory Plotnikoff, MD, MTS, FACP and Mark B. Weisberg, PhD, ABPP
In Trust Your Gut, two leading doctors in integrative medicine – a physician and a psychologist – have teamed up to develop the revolutionary CORE program. Gregory Plotnikoff, MD and Mark Weisberg, PhD offer a comprehensive, mind-body approach to healing, without the need for drugs. Their book is based on decades of clinical experience in resolving the most challenging gut symptoms. Trust Your Gut will empower you to awaken your ‘inner doctor”, find lasting, sustainable relief and reclaim your life through making simple changes in your diet and sleep, stress reduction and more.
About the Authors
Gregory A. Plotnikoff, MD, MTS, FACP, is a board-certified internist and pediatrician who has received national and international honors for his work in cross-cultural and integrative medicine. He is frequently quoted on medical stories in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times and been featured on All Things Considered, Speaking of Faith and Science Friday. [Photo credit: John Wagner Photography]
Mark B. Weisberg, PhD, ABPP is a clinical health psychologist. He is a Community Adjunct Professor in the Center for Spirituality and Healing, University of Minnesota, and is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Weisberg is frequently interviewed for television, radio and print. Visit him at www.drmarkweisberg.com.