Mind Your Gut | Mindfulness for Gastrointestinal Diseases
It didn’t take long to figure out that the more I obsessed over the pain, the anxiety, the "what ifs," the disappointment and the frustration, the more actual pain I felt. I was living (and still do sometimes) in moments of future pain, discouragement, worry and frustration. When you have a chronic illness with chronic pain, you are likely to be hyper-vigilant of any change and sensation in your body and when you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease, the focus is in your belly and in your gut.
While it is sometimes impossible to not be hyper-aware of the sensations in your body (and all of the uncomfortable emotional feelings that come along with it), it’s important to understand that feelings of anxiety, stress, overwhelm and frustration can actually cause symptoms to intensify or worsen. Since stress causes contractions in the digestive tract, particularly the colon or large intestine, the more one stresses about feeling pain and discomfort, the more pain and discomfort one will actually experience.
Chronic illness, particularly IBD (for the purpose of this post), is associated with high rates of depression, anxiety, fatigue and feelings of hopelessness. Research shows that learning to manage stress and anxiety through mindfulness, meditation and the power of the breath can help ease symptoms of IBD and result in an improved quality of life.
Making the time to meditate every day (Or as often as possible) and learning how to think about and make space for your body, can help to ease symptoms, build confidence, reduce anxiety and even help you to move toward a place of self-love.
When you have IBD (especially if you are experiencing symptoms), you likely have an intense love hate relationship with food. You daydream about eating certain foods and resent the foods you can’t eat or even resent yourself after eating. When you finally allow yourself a treat (sometimes because you can’t take it anymore), you scarf it down without a breath, hardly taste the flavors in the food, often overeat, combine a variety of foods that don’t sit well together and inevitably leave your body in total shock. Eating mindfully involves using all senses to be present and pay attention while eating. Paying attention includes noticing color, smell, taste and texture of food and the way one’s body feels during the eating process. Eating mindfully will allow you to eat more slowly, really taste the foods you are eating, notice how certain foods make your body feel and will allow your body to the time and space it needs to safely digest foods without causing additional an inflammatory response. When eating, using the following affirmations can help guide the process of mindful eating:
I’m savoring each bite.
I’m listening to my body.
I joyfully observe the tastes and textures of this food.
I’m allowing my body to guide my food awareness.
I release guilt and negative feelings about eating.
When experiencing chronic pain and a “limited lifestyle,” we often meet our bodies with negative thoughts, resentment, frustration and sometimes even hatred. It can be challenging to love your body when it “isn’t working properly” and causing you pain and discomfort. Since negative thoughts, stress and anxiety can often exacerbate symptoms, it makes sense that meeting your body with love, patience and kindness can help to ease frustrations, stress and anxiety related to your chronic pain and likewise help to manage the way you deal with symptoms and symptoms themselves. When experiencing pain or even when simply thinking about your body, closing your eyes and breathing into the different parts of your body with affirmations like “my body is healing,” "Today I give my body the rest it needs," “I love every part of my beautiful body,” “I trust my body to heal” or “my body is strong, my body is whole and I am whole” can help to bring you to a place of self-love and peace with your body when you need it most.
Breathing through and creating space for pain and discomfort and accepting it as part of the present moment, rather than avoiding it, fighting it or allowing yourself to dissociate, can change how you relate to the pain itself, which can have an impact on stress levels overall. Deep breathing can help to bring the body to a state of relaxation. Long slow exhalations stimulate the part of the nervous system that is responsible for rest, repair and relaxation. Engaging in 2:1 breathing (aka Making your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation (breathe in 2 counts, exhale for 4)) can help to bring your body to a state of calm-Which in turn, helps to relax sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract (minimizing pain) and allows the body to begin the reparation process.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique for learning how to monitor and control the state of muscular tension. It is effective in relaxing the mind and body and in allowing one to connect with and feel the sensations of the body. For someone with chronic pain, it allows you to feel the whole body rather than just the pain or areas where you experience pain. First, you systematically tense particular muscle groups in your body, such as your neck and shoulders. Next, you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them. You can also practice this across the body by softly tensing the muscles throughout the body beginning with the feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs and so on, moving up the body until you reach the crown of the head and then releasing either altogether or body part by body part from the starting point.
Similar to Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Gut Mantras, guided imagery can also be a powerful tool in easing the pain and emotional discomfort of IBD related symptoms and chronic pain. When experiencing pain or simply as a daily practice, sending healing energy into the abdomen and/or other areas where you experience pain can also help to ease symptoms and positively impact your mindset, relationship with body and overall stress level. Closing eyes and imagining a soft, soothing, cool energy; an image of peacefulness, cells healing, balance, color or light enter and move through your body into the places you feel you need it most (limbs, immune system, intestinal tract, pelvis, stomach, tissues, soft tissues of the mouth, esophagus, etc.) can be very healing and can have a calming impact on the nervous system.
Self massage can be a very helpful tool in one’s overall self-care routine, whether you have chronic pain/have been diagnosed with a chronic illness or not. For IBD specifically, using calming essential oils like peppermint, lemon or lavender, with a carrier oil (see our recent blog post about making your own essential oil body rub) can be helpful in easing symptoms. Inhaling these oils and rubbing them into the skin (where you feel pain) in soft, slow, circular strokes allows the essences and medicinal properties of these oils to be absorbed through the skin or soft tissues of the nose and enter the bloodstream and nervous system which, in turn, calms the body and mind and allows organs to relax.
Poses and Postures
A slow and gentle yoga practice can be beneficial for easing symptoms of IBD and other chronic pain as well as helps to bring the body and mind into a state of relaxation and calm. You’ll want to be mindful of how your body feels in each posture or pose and be careful not to squeeze your body into postures that are straining or painful as it will strain breathing and increase stress levels. Postures like half seated twists and reclining abdominal twists can help to massage the intestines and other abdominal organs; supported bridge poses can help to eliminate abdominal cramping and diarrhea and legs up the wall poses can help calm the nervous system, ease symptoms of anxiety and relieve indigestion and nausea.