To reduce pain of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, focus on the now
Mindfulness is everywhere these days, backed by science and shown to be helpful in lowering your blood pressure and beating back depression, decreasing your anxiety and increasing attention and focus, even fostering what scientists describe politely as less “emotional reactivity” and the rest of us would call fighting with your significant other.
It’s something anyone can do. It’s free, no prescription or doctor’s appointment necessary. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present, perhaps by concentrating on your breathing--in. . .out. . .in. . .--and not reliving something you screwed up in the past, or worrying about something you might screw up in the future. You can do it in your home, you can do it while practicing yoga, heck, you can do it when you go for a run (inoutinout).
Dr. Kirsten Tillisch is a UCLA associate professor in the UCLA Division of Digestive Diseases. She does guts—both as a clinician and a scientist, treating people with such disorders as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a nasty one that causes chronic abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation or, particularly cruel, both. And, while there are some meds that help, there’s no cure.
Mindfulness is one tool that Tillisch and other researchers know can thwart IBS. Regular practice can make people feel better, reducing bowel symptom severity and stress, and generally improving quality of life. But last month at the annual Digestive Diseases Week (yes, there is one), Tillisch presented new mindfulness research showing that two specific aspects of mindfulness benefit people with IBS the most. (See a video interview with Tillisch courtesy of Helio.com.
In evaluating improvements in mindfulness, says Tillisch, the norm is to employ the Five Facet Mindfulness Scale, which measures distinct aspects of mindfulness -- paying attention to the present moment, describing or labeling internal sensations, acting with awareness, not judging any inner experiences, and not reacting to inner experiences.
“Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been used for years, and nobody has really ever tinkered with it to see how it works for chronic pain disorders like IBS,” said Tillisch. “We hoped to identify some aspects of mindfulness that are most relevant to IBS to focus future treatment protocols.”
She and her colleagues showed that two aspects of mindfulness — labeling internal sensations and acting with awareness of your surroundings, improved the disorder’s symptoms.
Labeling means just that, giving a label to an inner sensation without judging it—“there is pain” as opposed to “I am in pain.” Acting with awareness means to stay within the present, and provided the most relief of symptoms.
“When people are having an attack, they tend to worry about how bad it will be, they remember their worst attack, they wonder how long this attack will last,” Tillisch said. “All of this impacts how the gut will function. Mindfulness teaches them to only focus on the present symptoms, and not catastrophize.”
By staying in the moment, she added, “seventy percent of our patients with IBS had a clinically significant drop in symptoms, even three months after completing the training.”
“This research helps to specifically refine the practice of mindfulness for our IBS patients,” Tillisch said. “That may lead to improved outcomes and a faster decrease of symptoms. That would, of course, be a relief to our patients.”