When I first complained of “stomach problems” when I was 15 years old my family doctor as well as the gastroenterologist I saw told me I was just stressed and I should learn to relax.
Even today at the age of 41 and with a definitive diagnosis of IBD I still don’t much like having my doctor or anybody else tell me to “relax” or “deal with my stress.” Not because I don’t think these things are true, I do – in fact, it’s been proven that stress can make illness worse by depressing the body’s immune system. But what I don’t like about terms like this is that it sounds too simple and as if our physical problem is in our mind and therefore we’re “making it all up” and our gut issues are not valid or real.
Over the past 10 years of living with the knowledge of what I have – ulcerative colitis – I’ve done everything I’ve talked about in my previous posts. I’ve learned more than I ever thought I wanted to know about IBD, poop, my gut, and where every toilet in America, Europe, and the Caribbean are located. But probably the most important thing I’ve learned, or actually come to understand about successfully living with a chronic illness is that my mind can help me control my body.
If you’ve read my book, Living with IBD & IBS: A Personal Journey of Success, then you now about my foray to Arizona and my introduction to Reiki and energy work. For the sake of those of you haven’t read my book yet, here’s a quick synopsis of what I’m talking about. By the time I was finally diagnosed with IBD and started treatment with Asacol I was the sickest I’d ever been. I had lost nearly 30 pounds and weighed an alarming 95 pounds. I’d quit my job. I was having anywhere from 10-30 bowel movements a day. And I pretty much wanted to die. I’d started on my diet journey and it was helping a bit. Then, a good friend of ours called me from Prescott, Arizona and told me to come and meet his friend who did “energy work”. Being a Midwestern Catholic girl, “energy work” sounded like a bunch of woo-woo mumbo jumbo and I wasn’t going for it. But then I ended up in the hospital. Even though what I had was not IBD-related, the IV antibiotics they gave me threw my IBD into an even bigger tailspin. I found myself back at square one and desperate enough to try anything, even “energy work.”
Long story made a whole shorter. That first trip I made to Arizona opened my eyes to the possibility of healing the body with my mind through Reiki, meditation, and yoga. After spending one week with our friend’s friend I was actually feeling a little better physically and a lot better mentally. My appetite was improving, I felt a little more in control of by body, and from that point on my life with IBD began to improve. It was a true turning point for me.
Years later I read the book, Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. and it really helped me to get into a regular, comfortable meditation practice. The book details the program of the stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This program, as well as other documented medical studies, have shown that stress can and does undermine our health leading us to become more vulnerable to illness and depression.
Meditation and yoga won’t cure our IBD, that’s not my point. But they can help us to live better lives with IBD, to be calmer, stronger, and more resilient. In my personal experience I can say that participating in a meditation and yoga program at least 30 minutes, four times a week helps me to soothe my mind, my gut, and my whole body. I have been able to decrease the amount of medication I take to help control my IBD, I work, I travel, and I live a full and fulfilling life.
For me, there isn’t just one thing that helps me live well with IBD. As selfish as it might sound, living well for me means putting myself first. I need to eat well, get enough rest, make time for meditation and yoga, and know when to give in and give my body a rest. I’ve had to accept the fact that I just don’t seem to have as much energy today as I did 20 years ago, and I may not be able to push my body to its limits without paying a price. I have learned to listen to my body, hear what it is telling me, and honor myself. This isn’t always easy. It might mean missing out on an opportunity, canceling a meeting, a date, or even a trip. But, ultimately, I feel that I am living a good life and as surprising as it may sound I am actually a stronger and happier and more outgoing person because of having Inflammatory Bowel Disease. I now respect my body, appreciate the good days, and am strong enough to give in when my body tells me it needs rest and care. B.C. – before colitis – I took my body for granted and pushed it to its limits. It is the mindfulness that I’ve gained from my meditation, yoga, and Reiki sessions that has helped me to learn that those doctors I saw when I was 15 years old weren’t quite so far off the mark. My mind may not have caused my IBD but it can help me to live successfully with it.
Published On: April 01, 2009