Imagine you’re on the freeway, and the driver who’s been tailgating you suddenly zips into traffic, swerves abruptly in front of you, and then slams on his brakes. You brake hard to avoid hitting him, causing you to swerve to the next lane. Then you see him laugh.
Your neck muscles begin to tense up, your jaw clenches, your lips tighten, your brow furrows. From the passenger seat, your spouse immediately notices your angry expression.
In contrast, remember a time when you were depressed. Your face sank, your gaze lowered, and people around you noticed.
Recognizing emotions on other people’s faces comes naturally to us. This skill transcends the barriers of language, race, culture, national origin, and even species, as we can recognize an angry dog or a frightened cat. Nature programmed humans to recognize various emotions easily and gauge our responses accordingly.
Your emotions are so apparent because your brain sends out a distinct pattern of signals to the face’s many small muscles, which means that every emotion has a corresponding facial expression. The people around you can discern your facial expressions in the blink of an eye. Each of us is an open book.
Gut Manifestations of Emotions
And yet, we are literally blind to the gut manifestations of these emotions. When you are fuming in traffic, your brain sends out a characteristic pattern of signals to your digestive system, just as it does to your facial muscles; the digestive system also responds dramatically.
As you sat fuming about the driver who cut you off, your stomach went into vigorous contractions, which increased its production of acid and slowed the emptying of the scrambled eggs you ate for breakfast. Meanwhile your intestines twisted and spit mucus and other digestive juices.
A similar yet distinct pattern happens when you’re anxious or upset. When you’re depressed, your intestines hardly move at all.
In fact, we now know that your gut mirrors every emotion that arises in your brain.
The activity of these brain circuits affects other organs as well, creating a coordinated response to every emotion you feel. When you’re stressed, for example, your heartbeat speeds and your neck and shoulder muscles tighten, and the reverse happens when you’re relaxed. But the brain is tied to the gut like no other organ, with far more extensive, hardwired connections.
Because people have always felt emotion in their gut, our language is rich with expressions that reflect this. Every time your stomach was tied up in knots, you had a gut-wrenching experience, or you felt butterflies in your stomach, it was the emotion-generating circuits of your brain that were responsible. Your emotions, brain, and gut are uniquely connected.
If Only More Doctors Knew
If a patient with abnormal gut reactions seeks help from the medical system and an endoscopy does not reveal something more serious, such as gut inflammation or a tumor, physicians often dismiss the importance of the patient’s symptoms. Frustrated about their inability to provide effective relief, they tend to recommend special diets, probiotics, or pills to normalize abnormal bowel habits … without addressing the true cause of the gut reaction.
If more doctors and patients realized that the gut is in fact a theater in which the drama of emotion plays out, that drama might be less likely to become a painful melodrama for patients.
Nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population suffers from a range of aberrant gut reactions, with symptoms that range from queasiness, gurgling, and bloating all the way to unbearable pain. In fact, symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, indigestion, and functional heartburn all fall into the category of brain-gut disorders.
Amazingly, the majority of patients suffering from abnormal gut reactions have no idea that their gut problems reflect their emotional state.
Even more amazingly: Most of the time, neither do their doctors.
This article is excerpted from the book THE MIND-GUT CONNECTION: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health by Emeran Mayer. Copyright © 2016 by Emeran Mayer. Published on July 1, 2016 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
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