For most people with chronic gut issues, each intestinal gurgle or twinge sets off alarm bells in the brain. When the main brain is in alarm mode, stress hormones are sent to the gut, prompting all the symptoms you dread: cramps, pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
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. 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. It’s a false alarm. The mix-up is that your more primitive, reflex-level limbic brain never got the memo.
Unfortunately, most people still react with alarm, anxiety, or panic when they feel that all-too-familiar discomfort in their gut. Calmly observing those sensations helps to short-circuit the primitive brain.
Bill Learns to Listen
Bill was a manufacturer’s rep in his twenties who suffered from abdominal cramping, bloating, pain, and constipation for at least eight years. His symptoms made his work very difficult because he was on the road several days a week traveling over a five-state area. The long hours in his car, the quick stops for fast food, and the uncomfortable motel beds all made his intestinal discomfort worse.
Like many gut sufferers, Bill had run the gamut of doctors and clinics trying to find answers and relief for his distress. After taking all the tests and seeing all the specialists, Bill was told that he had irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The physicians tried to help, but ultimately they encouraged him to learn to live with it.
This advice backfired. Bill’s frustration only made his symptoms worse. He’d cancel sales calls and break dates with his girlfriend. He just felt too lousy. Bill was at the end of his rope. Finally he went to Dr. Weisberg, who asked him, “How often do you actually observe your gut distress?“
Bill said, “Are you kidding me? I observe this distress 24/7! It’s always with me, never leaves me alone!“
“Yes,“ Dr. Weisberg responded, “but how much of that time do you actually just sit and notice the sensations? If you’re like most of our patients, when you feel a spike of pain, bloating, or pressure, you probably notice the feeling of it for about five seconds. This annoys you and makes you anxious, and then you probably start thinking things like, Oh no, not this again. How long is it going to last this time? What happens if the pain and bloating interfere with my sleep tonight?”
Bill thought about it for a minute, smiled slightly, and said, “Now that you mention it, I think you’re right! How did you know?“
“These are very natural responses. I see this all the time.“
Dr. Weisberg told Bill to point to where he felt the pain and bloating. Bill pointed to an area about 6 inches long in the center of his lower abdomen. He rated the intensity of the discomfort at 5 out of 10.
“Good,“ said Dr. Weisberg. “Now focus on the sensations in that area you just showed me. Imagine you’re just going to pull up a chair and sit right next to those sensations exactly the way they are, without changing them or trying to make them relax in any way.“
Bill looked puzzled. “But I do want to change them—I want those bad feelings to go away as quickly as possible.“
“Of course you do, but the way that you’ve been trying to make them go away hasn’t been working very well, has it? So let’s experiment on a new way of working with all of this, okay?“
Bill nodded and settled more fully into the chair. As he sat with the sensations and focused on them, he looked puzzled, almost surprised, as if he had never really paid such close attention to his sensations before. “It’s interesting,“ he said. “There’s actually a lot of movement going on there. The left side of it feels now like a slight throbbing sensation, and the right side feels kind of dull.“
“Very good,“ Dr. Weisberg replied. “Just make room for the left side of it to throb and the right side to feel the way it does. All you have to do is keep observing it and make room for it to do whatever it’s doing.”
Bill watched his intestinal show unfold for six or seven minutes and then looked up with a pleasant, yet surprised, expression. “It’s really something!” He exclaimed. “The left side throbbed more, and then the throbbing moved over to the other side. The area of bloating seemed to get bigger, and then smaller. I was really amazed to see how much everything was moving and changing. That fact was comforting to me because it meant my gut wasn’t stuck and could actually change. It seemed like the more I made room for all those different sensations to be there, the less noticeable they became.”
Plus the pain decreased. “It was at a 5, but I can barely notice it now—I’d say it’s a 1 out of 10. I didn’t think it was possible.”
Bill learned to observe his gut on his own, and when he returned for the second appointment 10 days later, he was very pleased to report that the frequency and intensity of the pain in his gut was noticeably reduced. His third appointment became his last, because the symptoms hardly bothered him at all anymore.
Not all patients find relief from their symptoms as quickly as Bill did. But practically all of our patients do experience relief and an improved sense of control over their symptoms by learning to notice and observe the sensations in this passive way.
At first, it may feel awkward or scary to observe your gut symptoms with a sense of passive curiosity. But we want to assure you that it is perfectly safe.
As a little experiment, just take a minute or two right now to focus on a sensation somewhere in your stomach or abdomen. Just imagine that you’re going to pull a chair up to it and simply observe it. Don’t try to change it, fight it, or make it relax. Just let that sensation in your abdomen be there exactly the way it is. If it stays the same, that’s fine. If it moves, changes location or intensity, that’s fine, too. Just be curious to notice what happens without you trying to change it in any way. Afterward, jot down on a piece of paper what you observed.
How It Helps
As you practice this skill and gain experience with it, your brain and nervous system will learn that these sensations are not threats. You will begin to feel the sensations diminish in intensity. What’s more, you’ll find that the anxiety, dread, and muscle tension associated with those sensations will also diminish. You will feel better and calmer.
Ironically, you’re learning to control your symptoms more by not trying to control your symptoms at all.
Co-author 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 in medical stories in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times and has been featured on All Things Considered, Speaking of Faith, and Science Friday. Photo by John Wagner Photography.
Dr. Plotnikoff’s co-author, 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.
Adapted and reprinted with permission from Conari Press, an imprint of Red Wheel / Weiser. Trust Your Gut by Gregory Plotnikoff, MD and Mark Weisberg, PhD is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at www.redwheelweiser.com or 800-423-7087.
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