April is a time of many good things, with the weather starting to get (a bit) warmer, the days a little longer and, this year, a touch of early chocolate with Easter kicking the month off.
It’s also IBS Awareness Month. If you’ve been reading my articles for a little while, you might know I’m one of the 10-20% of the population who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It’s a big part of:
– why I created my business
– why I want to help other people in the same situation; and
– why I’ve made many gentle changes to my lifestyle.
Rather appropriately it’s Stress Awareness Month too, which is perfect timing, as stress is one of the big triggers for IBS. A lot of the focus around managing IBS tends to be on the food we eat. While this is of course very important, it’s also really important to consider the how of eating – and also living.
Even if you’re eating well, which I certainly was, if you have IBS and your body is in a state of stress, which I also was, your digestion is going to find things challenging to say the least.
It’s therefore kinda key to work out what works for you when it comes to managing stress levels.
Many of us are now living in busy urban environments and are always ‘on’. There’s no let up from screens, being around lots of people, and doing rather than being.
It means we have the stress hormone cortisol flooding through our systems – and needless to say, that’s not great for your digestion. Constant stress means that your sympathetic nervous system, also known as ‘fight and flight’ mode, is in overdrive.
The opposite of this is your parasympathetic nervous system or ‘rest and digest’ mode. And as the name suggests, this means your body in a more relaxed state. Your heart rate slows, intestinal and gland activity are increased, and the sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract are more relaxed.
But if you’re someone who struggles with your digestion, how can you get yourself into this more relaxed state?
Well there are a few options that can help, including yoga, tai chi, walking, writing – and, something I’ve found particularly helpful, regular meditation. If fact, this became so important to me that I actually ended up training as a meditation teacher with the British School of Meditation. I wanted to deepen my own practice, but also share this experience with other people.
And I should point out that not all stress is bad. Adjusting your view on stress could also be one of the things you might want to look at as part of stress level management (and meditation practice).
How meditation can help with IBS
Some of the earliest research around the benefits of meditation were captured by Herbert Benson in his work on the ‘relaxation response’. He explored various types of meditation, starting with Transcendental Meditation and then branching out, to show physiological changes that resulted from meditation including: reduced oxygen consumption, lowered heart rate and lowered levels of lactate (high levels are normally associated with anxiety).
All of this is very beneficial if you’re suffering from stress-triggered IBS.
Meditation comes in many forms and fortunately it is more and more accessible, which means you can explore a style or styles that work best for you.
There’s often a perception that meditation is about blocking out thoughts and emptying your mind. Actually, that’s not really the point of meditation. And if you’ve tried to, you’ll know it’s pretty impossible as a human being not to have thoughts.
Meditation is much more about training your mind into awareness and a greater sense of focus – though the experience of this is very individual to each person.
Some styles of meditation may have a spiritual element or delve into different levels of consciousness, but I’ve personally found that a blend of mindfulness-style practices are ones that work best for me day to day. It’s something I can easily slot into my day and there are many elements that I carry with me into my living – and eating.
3 belly calming meditations
If you’re new to meditation, guided meditations are a great place to start as they can help you with focus and give you some different techniques to explore.
There’s definitely a benefit to meditating with an experienced teacher as they can answer questions and guide you through the experience (sometimes unexpected emotions can pop up when you spend time being quiet!). However if you want to dip into meditation on your own there are now lots of great options for you to try at home.
The Headspace app is of course very well known, but I like Insight Timer as it has a great selection of guided meditations from lots of teachers, as well as a timer to use if you prefer silent meditation.
If you’d like to explore some specific belly calming meditations, here are 3 types that I’ve found to be very helpful…
We quite often unconsciously hold a lot of tension in our bodies without even realising it and this is where a body scan meditation can really help. The meditation helps you slowly walk through your body, relaxing bit by bit. There’s a real connection with physical sensations (and sometimes even emotions) and moving through these without judgement.
This type of meditation has helped me generally be more aware of when and where I’m holding tension in my body, sometimes then being able to release it and other times breathing into it. It’s also a really good one to do at night time before sleeping.
Mindful eating is particularly important for anyone who suffers from tummy troubles.
Slowing down your eating and being a bit more mindful in the way you eat is very calming and connecting. Plus National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance on IBS used by medical professionals specifically recommends eating more slowly.
One of my favourite ways to do this, of course, is with a piece of dark chocolate, but also a warming cup of tea.
You can listen to one of my mini-meditations from the 7 Days of Belly Calm with a cup of tea to try this out for yourself…
One of the real struggles when you have IBS can be self-compassion.
When I was at my worst, I wanted to fight the symptoms and was constantly frustrated by my body and its inability to ‘behave’ itself. I think I was surprised by the realisation that one step towards managing my body better was to be more accepting of it and not running away from the uncomfortable. I also learned to appreciate my symptoms as a good early warning system when I had things a bit out of whack.
One of the meditations that I turn to when I feel my frustration and negative self-talk rearing up is a Loving Kindness meditation. In fact there are even studies that have shown the self-compassion benefits of this type of meditation. A gentle repeated phrase works through kindness to yourself and then to people around you, including people you don’t even know.
I particularly like the version of the Loving Kindness (or Metta) meditation recorded by Tara Brach, which you can listen to here.
There are many different types of meditation you can explore, so if you’ve tried before and haven’t quite connected don’t give up. Meditation is definitely not a silver bullet, but it has become an essential part of my self-care toolkit and is something that I know I can turn to whenever I need it.
Health Note – meditation may not be suitable for you if you suffer from certain mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or some personality disorders; please check with your supporting clinicians before taking part in meditation.
The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson
Kristin D. Neff1and Christopher K. Germer. A Pilot Study and Randomized Controlled Trial of the Mindful
Self-Compassion Program. J. Clin. Psychol. 69:28–44, 2013
I’ve also written an article on Mindful Eating and IBS for Good Zing if you’d like to know more about this particular area
If you’d like to join me in meditating, check out my monthly mindful hot chocolate meditation sessions in central London