Meta-Physician On Call: A Panic Attack of the Gut By Dr. Steven E. Hodes

Self-awareness precedes self-repair.

Listen to your gut. Gut reaction. My gut is telling me…

Ever wonder why our gastrointestinal tract is considered the source of intuitive knowledge or wisdom? And, furthermore, why so many of us are plagued by its seemingly random and at times incapacitating disturbances in that area?

Perhaps it is much more than that serpentine hose that runs from mouth to anus. In truth it is actually one of the most ‘aware’ parts of the human anatomy.

As a practicing gastroenterologist for over twenty-five years, I believe it is imperative that people pay close attention to their gut’s activities and in particular its disturbances. These disturbances are clues to your psycho-spiritual health that may be telling you more about yourself — and the stresses and strains of daily existence — than you care to admit.

Anatomy of the Brain-Gut Connection

A traditional diagram of the gastrointestinal tract usually reveals the organs — esophagus, stomach, small bowel and colon — but what is often left out are the nerve bundles or plexus (the centralized collection of neurons that are smaller yet analogous to the Hindu notion of chakras) and the enteric nervous system. These are the ‘brain in the gut’.

As humans, we have evolved to be able to deal with acute stresses. Our ancestor’s needed the “fight or flight” reaction to survive. For them it truly was a mechanism to protect them from perilous danger. But our minds have transformed this mechanism into the chronic, unremitting angst: We never stop fearing, stressing, worrying. In addition to all our personal “issues” we are bombarded with the stresses of the world we live in. It is enough to give many people — too many people — a pain in the chest, the belly, and yes, even the anus.

Panic Attack of the Gut

Physicians have labeled the gut’s response to this array of gastrointestinal symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome. Depending upon which section is affected, the symptoms can range from chest pain [non-cardiac] to swallowing difficulties, to nausea, to abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, diarrhea and constipation. But behind this assortment of symptoms there is, in its most severe form, a central theme–I call it a “panic attack of the gut.”

I have seen many patients in deep distress. Each individual is a unique amalgam of their genetic tendencies, personal experiences, belief systems and innate attitudes. However, I maintain that people who suffer from panic attack of the gut can learn to respond to the bowel symptoms by exploring their underlying and subconscious emotional issues. Keeping them ‘bottled up’ just does not work. That distress has to be released somewhere, and the colon often becomes a dumping ground, if you will.

Gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcer disease and perhaps cancer have strong psycho-physiologic components as well. Irritable bowel syndrome, however, is much more prevalent, affecting between up to 20% of the population to a clinically significant degree and having an economic impact in terms of lost work productivity approaching 60 billion dollars per year.

Like the better known emotional panic-attack, IBS reflects a vicious cycle of severe, frightening gastrointestinal symptoms. Attacks of abdominal pain, bloating, nausea and episodes of uncontrollable diarrhea may be so incapacitating as to render patients fearful to venture out of their homes. They plan their lives around the locations of the closest bathroom. Tragically, by climbing a mountain of worry, they only worsen their condition until they reach a peak of distress.

Bring healing to your gut, now

It is important for people to acknowledge their own pain, while remaining optimistic and determined to conquer it–this is the starting point for healing

When my patient’s are suffering from a panic attack of the gut I may utilize an array of methods for helping them — classic therapies such as such as adding fiber or using anti-spasmodic medications, prescribing medications to be carried along and taken only when the attack begins, education and awareness of specific dietary triggers.

I also focus on supporting their mental and emotional health and offer

a holistic technique to ward off a panic attack of the gut.

1) Pre-emptive strike–Anticipate the circumstances under which you usually get sick. For some diet is extremely important and individual food intolerances can mimic or worsen these attacks. Be aware of lactose, spices, gluten, artificial sweeteners as well as a host of personal idiosyncratic reactions you may have. Also recognize the symptoms early. You know it when it starts. Don’t deny it or pretend it is not happening. Take whatever medication you may be carrying with you. Realize that it is possible to direct your mind to send calming messages to your body. It may not stop the attack but it will lessen its impact.

2) Breath– Begin a slow, rhythmic ‘meditative’ breathing. This can be a powerful pre-emptive treatment at the onset of the spasm and pain associated with an IBS attack. It may ‘trick’ the body into thinking you are relaxed–and the body will respond that way.

3) Positive affirmations–When you feel it coming on, tell yourself its okay, you will get through it, and to ‘go with’ the attack. Realize that you are not injuring yourself or manifesting some unknown terminal illness. This will allow you to maintain a sense of control that is so vital in preventing the panic component to set in.

4) Visualize–Connect to a memory of your most relaxed state of being. Were you on a warm beach, drifting in and out of consciousness? When you were most joyous? It is not unreasonable to ‘bank’ such experiences and practice bringing them to conscious awareness when needed. Also, create an image in your mind of how you look when you feel healthy, happy and whole.

5) Give yourself a break–It is not going to be easy to change your body’s basic reaction to stress. It takes time and practice and may never be perfect. Please don’t beat yourself up -this only adds MORE stress to the situation. If you get frequent attacks before you leave the home–PLAN for that. Give yourself extra time if needed. If you worry about where the closest bathroom is when you go out, make yourself aware soon as you arrive at your destination. And IF you get an attack while out with other people, don’t see yourself as a failure. Lighten up the atmosphere by realizing: my body is telling me something. Disarm the situation and it will carry less power to make you sick.

Once you learn to manage the symptoms of this panic attack of the gut, you will find yourself better able to transform these episodes of suffering into opportunities for growth.

Copyright, 2008 Steven E. Hodes, M.D.,

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by Steven E. Hodes, M.D.
Steven E. Hodes, M.D., author of Meta-Physician on Call for Better Health: Metaphysics and Medicine for Mind, Body, and Spirit (Praeger Publishers, 2007),is a board certified, traditionally trained physician with a metaphysical point of view about healing. He has been in private practice for almost 30 years and also devotes himself to teaching, lecturing, and sharing his wisdom on the connections between metaphysics, medicine, and healing.