Emotions and Our Body

Everybody has emotions. Without them, life would lose its color and flavor. But how we choose to express (or not express) those emotions can have drastic, physical results on and in the body.

But why do we have feelings. What role do they play in our lives? Read through the phrases that I list below. Allow yourself to wonder what came first: the words of these phrases or the body state that the words describe.

Said another way, are the words our best attempt at describing emotions that originate in the body, or does the body attempt to feel what the words are saying? The answer has dramatic consequences for managing IBS.

• I just had to tell you. I couldn't hold it in any more!

• I need to get this off my chest. I am tired of carrying it around.

• The memory turns my stomach every time I think of it.

• I was so scared I went weak in the knees.

• My heart skipped a beat when I heard the news.

Emotional phrases in all spoken languages routinely utilize “the language of the body” in an attempt to describe the experience of the emotion being felt. This universal way of expressing ourselves exists because emotions are intimately connected to the body.

Emotions arise from the body and reflect specific patterns of activity within its various parts. The brain interprets those patterns as a specific emotion - anger, fear, sadness, love, security, disgust, alarm, etc. - but unless the body is involved, the brain has nothing to interpret.

The Second Brain and the Emotional Gut

Of all the body’s organ systems, the one most closely linked to emotional experiences is the gut. Our digestive tract has its own nervous system that is so chock full of nerves it is called the Second Brain (the enteric brain).

The nerves linking the second brain of the gut with the central brain in your head are part of a massive communication highway that process bodily sensations that are the building blocks of our felt emotions.

So, when an external situation makes you feel distressed, worried, angry, sad, suffering in pain, or experiencing some other negative emotional state, your gut is feeling it too! Conversely, IBS symptoms expressed in the gut give rise to negative emotional states through this same complex communication network that lives in our bodies.

Why Expressing Ourselves Matters So Much

Understanding the evolutionary ties that link our body and our emotions is one thing. Knowing how to use those connections to better manage IBS is something else entirely.

The first step is appreciating that emotions developed to help us quickly determine how to act. Something scary grabs attention over something comfortable. And, action to escape danger takes priority over action to seek security. But, to fulfill this guiding purpose, emotions need to be felt and their energy expressed.

Emotions and gut responses work together to prioritize what has immediate survival value and what can be deferred until later, what safety and security have been re-established.

But, the importance of emotions for gut health doesn’t mean running around all the time telling everyone how you are feeling. It does, however, mean that YOU need to know how you are feeling, and YOU need to take appropriate actions in response to those feelings.

Sometimes that action involves talking with someone in your life, whether that’s a spouse, a friend, a boss, or a therapist. Sometimes that action involves pursuing solitude and self-reflection. And sometimes that action requires something else.

But, to bottle up the feelings by denying them or running away from them is to defeat their purpose with health-damaging consequences, including exacerbation of IBS symptoms.

Getting Started

From ancient sages to recent scientific researchers, the results are clear. Learning to express what you are feeling by channeling it into effective action is an essential way to help you regulate your gut and to manage your gut symptoms more effectively.

Mark Nepo, a poet and author makes this clear when he says,

Here are some action steps to help you incorporate expressing your emotions and telling your story as part of your IBS healing path

• Begin a journal

For 10 minutes once a day, take pen to paper and write about what you are thinking, feeling, and dreaming about.

Alternatively, you could talk to yourself by creating a voice memo in your cell phone. Remember: This is not the time or place to censor. No one else has to read it. The more you simply express what is on your mind and in your heart, the more effective the exercise becomes when practiced consistently.

• Set up periodic “playdates” with a spouse or friend

These are special times when you can simply share what is on your mind  - your hopes, your fears, your longings - with this special someone. This practice can increase the strength of the social bond with that individual, which is a fantastic foundation for building more resilient intimacy with that person.

• Record your dreams

Sometimes, when we are not offloading what is on our minds during the day, those concerns get expressed through our dreams at night.

By recording what you recall of them, you begin to recognize the themes that recur so you more fully appreciate what these deeper yearnings are trying to express. Then, through careful attention, you can develop actions plans so that these dreams can finally find a path to greater fulfillment and satisfaction.

Until next time...