The spiritual meaning of IBS is about looking at imbalances in how we relate to our food and our emotions.
*Please note that this article discusses trauma, so be gentle with yourself as you are reading.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a fascinating disorder. It is incredibly common, affecting up to 20 percent of the world’s population. The IBS diagnosis often appears after everything else has been ruled out, and doctors still don’t know exactly what causes it or how, exactly, to treat it. But there is evidence that people who have experienced trauma are more likely to have IBS, and the latest understanding of this condition posits that it represents a misfire between the brain, the gut, and the nervous system. This in no way suggests that IBS is “all in your head.” Indeed, IBS is very real in the physiological sense. But is there also a spiritual meaning of IBS?
Digesting Emotional Toxins
Fundamentally, IBS is a problem with digestion, with separating nutrients from waste inside the body. For many people, especially people with childhood trauma, one of the strategies we’ve used to survive what is happening in our lives is to try to digest too much: to take on other people’s energy, to swallow our own feelings, to eat our needs and boundaries so we can get through the day.
It’s significant that women tend to be diagnosed with IBS more than twice as often as men. Many people who are raised as women in this society learn that they have to stuff away their own feelings in order to take care of everyone else around them. If this is part of the strategies we’ve used in our lives, especially when we were young, our digestive systems are overloaded by trying to eat food, our own feelings, and everyone else’s negative energy. No wonder we feel sick.
Questions for Contemplating the Spiritual Meaning of IBS
- Do you feel that your needs, boundaries, and emotions matter and will get met?
- When you have big feelings, are you able to express them clearly and feel heard and supported? Or do you tend to suppress and “swallow” them?
- Do you use food (either by eating or restricting) to soothe your anxiety?
- Are you often more concerned about what other people are thinking and feeling than how you feel?
- Do you often find yourself in a care-taking role?
Hypervigilance and the Spiritual Meaning of IBS
Hypervigilance is a classic symptom of trauma and can sometimes look like being particularly intuitive or sensitive to other people’s moods or feelings. When we learn to be very adept at reading other people, that is sometimes because it helps us to anticipate other people’s needs and thus keep ourselves safer.
When we are hypervigilant, we are stressed—our nervous systems are on high alert looking for threats. When we are stressed, it’s much harder for our digestive systems to do their work, because the energy in the body is being sent to the heart, lungs, and limbs rather than to the extensive work of digesting our food. Here are some questions to consider around hypervigilance:
- Are my symptoms better when I’m alone?
- Do I eat in a calm, safe environment, slowly and sitting down, or am I up and on the go?
- Do I trust that I am safe in my day-to-day life, or do I always feel a little bit unsafe?
Food and Relationships
One of the things that is fascinating to consider about food is that it is really fundamentally about relationship. When we were newborns, food always came alongside touch, whether we fed at the breast or a bottle. For many of us, eating is a social affair. But even subtler than that: food means taking a piece of the outside world inside of our bodies and literally making it become us. Food is a way of taking in our environment and integrating ourselves with that environment. When digestion is not working well, it might indicate that we are not well-integrated into our world. Here are some questions to consider when thinking about the spiritual meaning of IBS, food, and relationships:
- Do I feel that I belong in my family, social group, or community?
- Do I feel “different” from everyone else?
- Do I feel that I am normally seen and understood for who I am?
- What is my relationship like to the natural world around me, the people around me, the food I eat?
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There are many treatments out there for IBS, though no single one seems to work for everyone. That may be because IBS represents an energetic imbalance in our spiritual or emotional bodies. One of the latest treatments for IBS is gut-directed hypnotherapy, which seems to work by calming the body and helping to repair the strained relationship between the brain and the gut.
In addition to whatever treatments are helpful, however, it might really be worth looking at how we relate to our food and our own emotions. Practicing self-love, expressing our emotions, finding ways to habitually calm our nervous systems, and allowing our needs and boundaries to matter might be the best thing we’ve ever done to improve our IBS symptoms.
Are you wary and in pain? Consider seven ways to truly trust your gut.