I’m excited to bring you an informative guest post by the wonderful Dr. Julia King. Dr. King is a psychologist and yoga teacher specializing in treating anxiety and IBS. Dr. King uses her expertise and evidence-based information to breakdown how a mindfulness based approach can be an important part of IBS management.
What comes to mind when you think of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)?
Abdominal pain? Cramping? Bloating?
Gas? Diarrhea? Constipation?
These are physical symptoms of IBS. So, they must require a physical intervention, a medical intervention, right?
In fact, IBS is quite difficult to manage with a medication regimen, and the most common medical interventions for the management of IBS include dietary recommendations and lifestyle changes. To learn more about what IBS is please see a past blog post on the topic here.
In celebration of World Mindfulness Day, let’s delve into what those lifestyle changes might look like. (Hint: mindfulness and stress reduction are key!)
There is a significant link between IBS and anxiety1. And, IBS symptoms are worsened by stress and anxiety2.
Interventions designed to reduce stress and anxiety, like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in particular, serve to reduce IBS symptoms and improve quality of life3.
Therapies based in mindfulness combine several really important components that work together beautifully to reduce IBS symptoms and improve quality of life for IBS patients.
Mindfulness is the ability to “be here now.” The present moment is the only moment that we really have available to us. Prior moments are gone, and future moments are not guaranteed. So, ideally, we’d like to be fully present, in both mind and body, in the present moment, in the here and now. In this way we are able to truly live our fullest lives.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
So, not only do we want to “be here now,” we want to do so in a way that is intentional and without judgment.
Mindfulness can be learned. Informal mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, body scan meditations, walking meditations, and sound meditations are included in the variety of ways mindfulness can be taught and experienced. In doing so, we use our breath, body, and senses to anchor us to now, and to observe things happening without judgment. The importance of mindfulness is also discussed a lot when it comes to mindful eating.
In the context of IBS symptoms, we learn to become more conscious of our breath, the tension in our bodies, how our food tastes, how our bodies feel and react when we eat, and how we react when our bodies respond to what we eat. We learn to observe and experience sensations, even pain and other IBS symptoms, without judgment. We can learn to slow the breath and relax the body. We also learn to observe and experience our thoughts and feelings without judgment. And, we then can become less controlled by sensations, pain, stress, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Target problematic thinking
The way we think is hugely impactful to how we feel, both emotionally and physically.
It cannot be stressed enough how hugely powerful our thoughts can be. In the context of the mind-body connection, we can create – and worsen – physical sensations in our bodies with our thoughts.
One particularly problematic pattern of thinking for IBS patients is “catastrophizing,” or anticipating the worst case scenario.
With IBS this might look like fully believing you’ll have an accident on the train or on the commute to work, or having to spend a lot of time in the bathroom during a dinner date. You can imagine this scenario in the greatest of detail. Then, emotionally and physically you may feel as if it is actually happening.
We know that catastrophizing leads to worsened IBS symptoms. And conversely, we know that learning how to respond effectively to catastrophizing thoughts leads to improved IBS symptoms and higher quality of life.
Targeting catastrophic thinking involves learning to observe such thoughts, and the feelings and physical sensations that arise with such thoughts, without judgment. In doing so, we learn how to respond more effectively, and more rationally, to such thoughts, and therefore with less fear.
Enhance emotional regulation
Emotional regulation simply means being able to effectively manage your emotions. Being able to non-judgmentally observe your experience of emotions, just like with catastrophizing thoughts, allows us to choose a different response – a more effective way of coping – than we usually do.
Mindfulness-based therapies help us to learn how to see and accept our emotions in the moment, and then choose how we’d like to respond.
Acceptance is not the same as being okay with it; it’s more like being able to see what’s occurring and understanding that today, right now, this is how it is, even if we don’t like it.
Increased emotional awareness and acceptance are key to mindfulness-based therapies and are quite impactful in reducing IBS symptoms and improving quality of life for IBS patients.
World Mindfulness Day allows us to raise awareness and promote the benefits of mindfulness. In the context of treating IBS patients, the data is really clear: mindfulness-based interventions reduce anxiety, reduce stress, reduce IBS symptoms, and improve the quality of life of IBS patients.
If you’re suffering from IBS and are interested in working with an informed mental health practitioner, check out the Rome Foundation’s Gastropsych directory listing.
Dr. Julia King is a psychologist and yoga teacher with an integrated mind-body approach to treatment. She specializes in treating anxiety, IBS, and emotional eating and body image. She has a fully telehealth practice and although she is based in New York City she can provide services to clients in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Kentucky. Learn more and connect with Julia!
- Goldin PR, Gross JJ. Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion 2010; 10: 83-91.
- Blanchard EB LJ, Jaccard J, Rowell D, Carosella AM, Powell C, Sanders K, Krasner S, Kuhn E. The role of stress in symptom exacerbation among IBS patients. J Psychosom Res. 2008; 64: 119-128.
- Ghandi F, Sadeghi A, Bakhtyari M, Imani S, Abdi S, Banihashem SS. Comparing the efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction therapy with Emotion Regulation treatment on quality of life and symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndreom. Iran J Psychiatry 2018; 13:3:175-183.