The concept that your mind and gut are linked has been the subject of an incredible amount of sophomoric humor. And with good reason: Your emotional state can have a huge impact on what’s happening in your belly. When you’re angry or stressed out, your brain sends distress signals to your digestive system, stirring up activity in your gut. The reverse holds true as well: Any upset you feel in your bowels adds to your mental distress.
For those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common and painful disorder of the digestive tract, marked by constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas and cramps, understanding that link can provide relief. Since there’s no cure for IBS, treatments are aimed at alleviating symptoms and managing triggers such as diet and stress.
It’s all related to our primitive tendency to confront stressful situations with a fight-or-flight response, explains J. David Forbes, MD, of Nashville Integrated Medicine. When the body perceives danger or stress, it prepares to fight or flee by moving blood and energy away from the gut. Abdominal muscles tighten. And if you are a person with IBS, your symptoms may flare in response.
Mind over Malady
While there’s no single secret antistress remedy for IBS, “anything that touches the soul and reduces your stress level will help,” says Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Some people find that guided imagery, in which you imagine a peaceful scene, is an effective and easy way to lower the mental irritations that can trigger gut irritations. For others, meditation or deep breathing works wonders.
If your stress or anxiety is severe, behavioral therapy — which includes relaxation therapy, traditional psychotherapy and biofeedback, among other practices — can provide specific strategies for handling and reacting to situations so you feel better both upstairs and downstairs. For example, learning to express anger in a healthy way can help alleviate IBS symptoms, Dr. Forbes says. “It’s common to find people with IBS who frequently swallow and hold in anger. Early in life, we learn that there are bad consequences for letting it out. It takes a safe environment to express anger before a person can explore that aspect of themselves and begin to heal,” he says.
Belly Breathing Benefits Belly Aches
Practicing deep breathing can unwind your mind while easing tight abdominal muscles. When you breathe deeply from the belly instead of from the chest, you allow the abdominal muscles to relax, encouraging normal bowel activity. Unfortunately, most people tend to breathe shallowly, from the chest, instead of taking in and releasing deep breaths from the abdomen.
Correcting this is as easy as, well, taking a deep breath. Here’s how to do it. Find a quiet spot with few distractions. Start by paying attention to your breathing. Take a “normal” breath, the way you typically breathe.
Then take a slow, deep breath through your nose. Put your hand on your belly to feel your abdomen expand (stop thinking about sucking it in to look good!). Exhale. Continue to slowly inhale and exhale for five minutes, and do it twice a day. It will eventually become automatic, Dr. Forbes says: “Once you get the feel of your belly expanding and pushing outward, it should only take about one month before you retrain the body to breathe this way nearly all of the time.”
Of all the mind-body therapies for treating the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, hypnotherapy may have some of the strongest evidence supporting its use. Numerous studies have looked at the connection between hypnosis — which involves, among other things, techniques such as visualizing a fully functioning GI tract — and IBS symptoms, and the studies almost always show improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as in anxiety, depression and quality of life. It’s possible that hypnotherapy alters the way the brain reacts to stress, reducing the body’s negative response.
Forget images of swinging watches and clucking like a chicken: Hypnosis happens when a trained hypnotherapist induces a state of consciousness in which you become highly responsive to suggestion and direction. “Everyone has a conscious mind and an unconscious mind,” says Melissa Roth, PhD, a hypnotherapist in Birmingham, Alabama. “The unconscious mind runs your body like a computer runs a robot. In other words, you don’t have to give any conscious thought to all those thousands of biochemical processes that go into digesting your food. You simply eat, and later you eliminate the waste products,” she explains. But sometimes the unconscious mind gets off track, and when it involves the digestive system, symptoms of IBS may result. Through hypnosis, you can give the unconscious mind directions on how to retrain the gut to function the way it’s supposed to work.
“Hypnosis is noninvasive. There are no drug interactions or negative side effects. And once you learn how to use hypnosis, you can use it for a lifetime,” Roth says.