“Let me chew on that thought, I need to mull it over.” “Ever since the breakup, I’ve had a horrible pit in my stomach!”
Expressions such as these are common in our lexicon, but how often do we consider that it’s not just our food that we digest, but our emotions too? When our emotional state is unresolved or uneasy, we often feel it in our guts. That “pit in your stomach” may be the body’s way of trying to break down an uncomfortable feeling.
Often, when you don’t give that emotion the attention or care it deserves, or try to ignore it, you are literally blocking off the energy (oxygen, blood, and circulation) that it needs in order to be properly digested and processed.
According to Chinese medicine certain organs are more affected by specific emotions than others. For instance, the liver is associated with anger, and the spleen with worry, or overthinking. It is believed that when those emotions are not properly dealt with, those specific organs will be particularly impacted and may not function as optimally.
It works in reverse too---when that organ is compromised due to dietary or lifestyle abuse, it gets out of balance and may cause issues with it’s associated emotion. The “angry drunk” takes on a whole new understanding when we see it through this lens, with the liver most affected by alcohol abuse.
We know that certain foods or substances have a direct impact on our emotions, but let’s not ignore how much our emotional state has an effect on our digestion too.
Have you ever noticed that if you are anxious, or have “butterflies” in your stomach, you either just don’t want to eat, may over-eat, or have trouble digesting the food you put into your belly at that time? Often, it manifests as a stomachache, diarrhea, or sometimes constipation.
Our guts are sensitive enough to emotions that even listening to something upsetting on the news while eating can affect digestion! Think about it--- while taking a bite of your breakfast cereal, you hear a sound bite from your least favorite politician (without naming names). Instead of thinking about properly chewing and breaking down that cereal, your mind goes to what would happen to the state of the world if that particular buffoon were elected. And without even realizing it, you clench up certain essential functions in your gut, depriving them of adequate amounts of oxygen and circulation, leading to impaired assimilation of food and nutrients.
Notice I said, “without even realizing it”. The vagus nerve, connecting the brain to the heart, lungs, and digestive tract, is not only one of the longest nerve in the body, but is like a super-highway of information being sent back and forth between the brain and gut. Within fractions of a second, the brain relays it’s emotional state to the gut, and simultaneously the gut sends messages back to the brain. Who knows where it originates, sometimes our mind get’s that “gut feeling ” before our brain, or the opposite can be true too.
Now you may be wondering, “What can I do to better digest my emotions and my food?” There are so many ways to approach this topic, but I’ve compiled five tips I’ve found especially helpful:
Treat your belly well (like you would care for a baby!)
Feed it good, well-chewed food and supportive thoughts, so it will function better and produce better moods. You may have heard by now, but it’s estimated that as much as 90% of serotonin is produced in our guts, not in our brain! It’s been shown that healthy gut bacteria and intestinal walls are really important to ensure proper production of serotonin. Feed your belly healthy bacteria (like you feed a baby breast-milk) with fermented foods and fresh colorful veggies, while minimizing the sugars and processed foods that squelch out the healthful bacteria.
2. Clear your mind of stress-producing thoughts before eating.
If something is on your mind that causes anxiety, tell yourself you can begin to mull it over again after your body has had time to digest it’s food.
Give yourself a minute or two before eating to imagine a warm golden beam of sunlight streaming from your head, through your brain, dissolving any worries or stress. Imagine that warm sunlight, melting down from your brain to your belly, blanketing all digestive organs, and collecting in a golden pool of honey in your belly. You will now be able to break down food that much more easily.
Continue practicing calm thoughts during eating and even for a bit after, while you are still digesting. Between meals, you can go back to being the stressed-out raging worrywart you were before.
3. Move!---go for a walk, run, swim, bike-ride or dance it out.
The word emotion is aptly named because in it's essence it is "energy-in-motion". This is a good way to remind ourselves we are not our anger, sadness, or whatever else….emotions are merely energy passing through us. And, as you move your body, you not only get the physical benefits of exercise, but emotions move through you more easily, rather than getting locked on a specific hamster wheel, and forming, say, that in your stomach. My personal favorite is power-walking, skipping, or running on the beach because it combines fast movement with the soothing benefits of being in nature. Figure out what works best for you and make sure to DO it.
4. Try this visualization to help work through difficult emotions:
First, notice where in your body you feel the emotion most. Whether it’s grief, sadness, fear, regret, anger, anxiety, or anything else, allow yourself to really feel it, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. Ask it what messages it may have for you at this time. One of the benefits of emotions, whether uncomfortable or pleasant, is that they cause us to remember things more clearly. What might your unconscious want you to remember from this experience going forward?
After feeling into the emotion for it’s qualities, affected areas in the body, and messages it carries, ask yourself if you want to release some of the intensity from the emotion. Be sure to ask and listen for an honest response. Some emotions need more time to process before they feel ready to fully or even partially released. If the answer is “no”, continue with the above process, sitting with the emotion and listening to what it has to say, while remembering the law of nature, that everything moves and will eventually pass with time.
If the answer is “yes”, however, or even a “partial yes”, play with moving it around in your body. Imagine it trickling down your legs and into the earth. The earth knows how to process and transform almost anything, turning it back into fertile soil. What emotion, color, or image can you imagine the earth turning it into? Imagine the earth sending it back up through your feet, legs, and flooding all parts of your body.
Smile down to that transformed emotion, color, or image within your body, and lastly, imagine it smiling back at you.
*Ideally, this visualization can be done outside, with your feet, bottom or back in contact with the earth. But, any comfortable place will do the trick.
5. Seek the expertise of a nutritionist, therapist, hypnotherapist, or acupuncturist to help provide you with more specific guidance for you.
There are times in your life when it doesn’t behoove you to trudge through it on your own. Nutritionists, nutritional counselors, and health coaches can recommend certain dietary tips or natural supplements to aid with digestion or emotional wellbeing. Therapists or hypnotherapists can be by your side as your work to understand and move through various, difficult emotional states. Acupuncturists can help with organ or energy stagnation. Chi Nei Tsang therapy is a type of massage focused on the belly, which can be instrumental in restoring blood flow to organs and areas of blocked energy, while also calming the nervous system.
If you are interested in learning more about digestion, join Anne Aymakoglu and I for our upcoming “Dive into Digestion” 4-class series. It meets Tuesdays, starting November 8th, 2016 and covers a deeper understanding of assimilation, elimination, and relaxation.
If you want more personalized support, sign up here to schedule a free nutritional or hypnotherapy consultation, or to schedule a Chi Nei Tsang belly massage.
Chia, Mantak. Chi Nei Tsang. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Universal Tao Publications, 1993