Most people think of stress as something that results from circumstances and events occurring in and around them. Having a digestive disease or disorder can often trigger feelings of helplessness, fear, and self-blame. However, believing that circumstance causes our distress means that circumstances (or events or people around you) must change for you to be free from sadness, panic, or any stressful feelings. This way of thinking leaves you helpless and powerless.

Your thinking is the intervening variable between events and your feelings. Your thoughts happen so quickly, automatically, and habitually that you are often unaware that you have evaluated, interpreted, and given meaning to the situation, and this interpretive process determines what you feel and how stressed you become.

Some people with a disruptive gut condition are prone to thinking fearfully, critically, and unrealistically. Others entertain catastrophic thoughts such as, ‘What if people don’t have a good time at the party?’ ‘Having a bad gut is horrible and intolerable,’ ‘Having this disorder means I am a weak person,’ ‘My life is wrecked,’ and even, ‘Nothing will ever change.’

Our feelings, in turn, create two simultaneous and instantaneous reactions in our bodies. They affect our breathing pattern and create some tension, or release of tension, somewhere in the body. For example, as soon as you feel fear, your heart rate increases and you may feel throat tension or stomach churning. Joy will produce a slowing down of your heart and perhaps a feeling of expansion or calmness in your chest. Anger can make your breath shallow, your face red and hot, and your chest tighten. Although it may be difficult to identify what you think, if you start paying attention to what goes on inside your body, then you will be better able to identify your feelings through your body experience.

When negative feelings happen only occasionally, the body quickly returns to a state of balance and well-being. However, if negative feelings happen frequently, over prolonged periods, then your body habitually adapts irregular breathing patterns, and these ongoing tensions result in ‘holding’ patterns. These patterns can manifest as a lump in the throat, a knot in the stomach, or as a neck pain. At this stage, it becomes important to work ‘in’ and ‘with’ the body to relieve these chronic patterns of tension and pain. People with digestive diseases and disorders often feel gut tightness or tension.

Many people tend to hate and alienate the areas in their bodies that give them pain, discomfort, or trouble. This is a form of self-rejection, given that this body part is a part of you. The first step in healing is a practice that is gentle and soothing to restore calmness, relaxation, and to invite a more compassionate relationship with yourself.

The primary and most powerful skill I teach clients, and unquestionably the one that most individuals benefit from immediately is using breathing techniques to start relieving any holding patterns. By bringing the breath in a very gentle, soft way to areas that have been tense and tired, you bring nurturing and caring energies to the troubled areas.

To do this, lie on your back, with your knees up and feet flat on the floor, about hip distance apart. Keep your hands on your belly, as if you were holding something very precious. With your mouth and your eyes closed, begin very slowly and gently inhaling, and thoughtfully send the breath down into your belly. Imagine there is a balloon in your belly that inflates when you inhale and deflates as you exhale. Hold this balloon very lovingly in your hands. The goal is to breathe slowly and low in the body. Do this for 15 minutes twice a day if you can. Slowly you will begin to connect more compassionately with that part of your body that needs loving care and you will release some of the tensions held in the belly that contribute to sustaining and maintaining your symptoms.

The breath is your most powerful ally in healing. Given that it is free, available at all times, and has no side effects, consider using it for your own healing and self-care

Claire Maisonneuve, Registered Clinical Counsellor
Claire Maisonneuve is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and 16-year director of the Alpine Anxiety & Stress Relief Clinic. She uses a unique mind/body approach in her treatment of anxiety, stress, depression, and chronic pain. Call or visit her updated website in the New Year for free tools to start your healing and for more details about her unique mind/body approach to counselling: 604-732-3930
First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 169 – 2008