Thoughts can be powerful things. They have the power to affect how we feel, both emotionally and physically. If you suffer from IBS, it may be worth your while to become aware of whether or not certain thoughts have the potential to trigger or exacerbate your symptoms. Once you begin to identify those thoughts, you can then replace problematic thoughts with thoughts that have a more beneficial effect on your digestive system.
Why are some thoughts problematic? Our brains are responsible for taking in and making sense of enormous amounts of information. In the process of synthesizing all of this information, our brains are prone to making certain cognitive errors, which cognitive therapists label as distortions or irrational thoughts.
When we perceive things clearly, our emotional responses remain at a helpful level. It is when we are not thinking clearly that our emotions become unnecessarily strong. Since the design of our bodies is such that our emotional reactions have an impact on our digestive symptoms, focusing on healthy thinking can minimize the effect that strong, negative emotions can have on your IBS.
Common Cognitive Distortions
Here are some of the common thinking errors that all humans are prone to committing:
• Fortune telling: predicting the future, includes “What if” thoughts
• All or nothing thinking: seeing things in black and white, includes perfectionism
• Mind reading: concerns about what others are thinking
• Awfulizing: perceiving difficulties as absolutely awful
• Shoulds: absolute demands on ourselves, others and the world
Cognitive Distortions and IBS
Here are some examples of common irrational thoughts held by people who are dealing with IBS:
• “I can’t go to that party – what if I get sick” - fortune telling.
• “I cannot eat vegetables of any kind – they make my IBS worse” – all-or-nothing thinking.
• “Others will think I am weak because of my IBS” – mind reading.
• “It would be awful if I was to pass gas in public” – awfulizing.
• “I should go to work every day regardless of how ill I feel” – shoulds.
Once you have become aware of the types of irrational thoughts that your brain is prone to, you can begin to develop healthier replacement thoughts. Writing these thoughts down and carrying them with you can help you to keep your thinking in line and reduce any emotional reactivity that could affect your digestive system. As you try to develop your calming self-statements, think of talking to yourself the way that you would expect a best friend to talk, focusing on being gentle and kind to yourself. Here are some examples:
• “It is not going out that aggravates my IBS, it is the fact that I get anxious about going out. I will try to stay calm and deal with whatever happens.”
• “Lots of things can trigger IBS symptoms, specific foods are not always the problem. I need to use a little trial and error to see which foods my body can handle.”
• “Other people will most likely be supportive if they find out that I have health problems. If someone in my life is judgmental, I do not have to internalize their unkind thoughts”
• “Everyone has digestive symptoms at some point in their life. Although it might be embarrassing to experience symptoms in public, it is not the end of the world.”
• “I need to remember that I have a health problem. If I am really feeling poorly, it is okay to take care of myself and stay home.”
Barbara Bradley Bolen, Ph.D.