In my role as psychotherapist, I am struck by the inter-play between mind and body. For example, consider how often we refer to our guts! We may speak of instinct as a ‘gut feeling’. When we are faced with difficulty, we may say we ‘follow our gut’. When we give advice, we may ask what our ‘gut is telling us’? When we are distressed we may refer to feeling ‘sick to the stomach’. This suggests that there is a strong connection between our thoughts, feelings, emotions and our guts. This inter-play between mind and body is so strong, it has become part of our language. It may also come as no surprise, therefore, to find that when we are emotionally troubled, our gut is a part of our body that may in some way suffer. Conversely, we may also consider whether our emotional well-being may in some way suffer, if we do not care for our ‘gut health’.
In my role as a Clinical Supervisor, I share with my Supervisees; themselves psychotherapists, the importance of listening to ones instincts; our ‘gut feeling’. Certainly, within clinical practice, I always recommend seeking evidence to support or refute a ‘gut feeling’, but this deep instinct is something we have from our primordial past and I believe that instinct is a significant aspect of the human condition; ignore it at your peril, for it evolved to help us stay safe and to survive.
When people are in a state of emotional unwellness; when we are confused, under the control of another, when we are intoxicated, sick or when our trust has been misplaced or abused, we can find ourselves questioning our instincts. We can sometimes lose faith in our ‘gut feelings’. A lack of trust in instinct; this very primordial part of ourselves that has evolved to ensure our survival, can be deeply distressing and I have many clients who come to me due to this deeply held lack of self-trust. The consequences are often utterly debilitating and de-stabilising for the individual who may begin to question his/herself on anything and everything. This, in turn, can leave a person feeling almost paralysed by anxiety.
Indeed, I support many clients who have developed behaviours, in their distress, that attack the health of their ‘gut’; for example by over eating, under eating, consuming alcohol, consuming illicit drugs or misusing prescribed medication. I have clients who purge, clients who use laxatives, clients who develop cravings for foods; particularly sugars and salts, or substances that directly affect the health and well-being of their gut and entire digestive system. The more the ‘gut health’ is damaged, the more the emotional state deteriorates and the sense of well-being diminishes. The effects are both physiological and psychological and the person’s overall condition becomes one of physical and emotional distress and deterioration.
The emotional distress is the part that causes people to come to see me, but I teach my clients that I work with the ‘whole person’; so there is a physiological aspect to my work, too. My role becomes very much about helping the client to develop a strong self-awareness about their thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours and, importantly, developing the awareness of the inter-play between mind and body and how one affects, and can benefit, the other. Another example of how emotional distress can affect gut health is when it causes Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is something that many of my clients are afflicted by.
Increased emotional and physical distress leads to heightened states of anxiety and can trigger the discomfort of the ‘fight or flight’ phenomenon. Again, this is a response that harks back to our primordial origins; developed as we have evolved, with the intention of ensuring our survival. My work helps people to learn about, and understand, that their mistreatment of their gut health can actually undermine healthy responses and can trigger states of deep anxiety; akin to the intense state of fear and existential threat that the ‘fight or flight’ response represents.
My role moves into becoming that of helping a person regain control of their physical and emotional symptoms and, importantly, developing new emotional and thought responses. Alongside this, I help the person to regain control of their behavioural responses. This is where I use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Geestalt and Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT). With these controls in place, a person can begin to become proactive in both thoughts and behaviours; triggering a happier emotional state and accompanied by the physical well-being that comes from those healthier behaviours. The mind and body can achieve better balance and a sense of healthiness can return to the ‘whole person’.
I recently attended a wonderful course, facilitated by a colleague and friend; Trish Dent. Trish is a Shiatsu practitioner and, alongside a variety of her other therapies, she now teaches the benefits of a healthy gut. Her course was called ‘Heal Your Gut’ and it was highly informative about the physiology of the gut and the impact of diet on our overall well-being.
Here are some photos from the event:
The course lasted for about four hours and included some time spent on cooking and producing some wonderful dishes, all designed to benefit gut health. I have a chronic illness and so I chose to prepare the dish that required minimal chopping and which enabled me to work in the corner area of the kitchen; which enabled me to prop myself up in the corner, as I would otherwise need my walking stick for support when standing for more than a few minutes.
At the end of the rush and fun of cooking, we all sat together and shared our dishes and enjoyed chatting over our healthy lunch.
I must say that while this was a fascinating topic, I do dislike the word ‘gut’; but I have to say that this is a subject worthy of everyone’s interest.
(C) Dean G. Parsons. 2016.