Written by Jennifer C. Franklin, PhD
Your Second Brain
Did you know that you have a brain in your gut? Often referred to as your body’s “second brain”, your Enteric Nervous System (ENS) looks structurally like brain tissue, houses as many or more neurons than your spinal cord, and contains all of the same neurotransmitters (chemicals that facilitate the transmission of neuronal messages) that are contained in your “first brain”. Your gut also houses the majority of your body’s immune cells. Your digestive system, immune system, and nervous system converge in your gut, making it a hotbed of activity.
Remember that old expression about “gut feeling”? It turns out to be true! The fact that you have a nervous system in your gut means that your gut is wired to feel. In fact, your gut feels with great sensitivity and perceptivity, though it can’t describe or explain what it’s feeling. This is really frustrating when you’re having uncomfortable digestive symptoms because you know something’s wrong with your gut, but you can’t get the information.—Well, you can get the information, but it’s a somewhat circuitous route.
A Second Right Brain Without a Left Brain
Think of your gut brain as a second right brain instead of a second left brain. While the left brain controls logic and language, the right brain senses and feels emotion. When you have an emotion, it’s your right brain that feels it, and your left brain that investigates the emotion so that you can describe and explain it using words. Your gut brain is wired to experience feelings and sensations without words or thoughts, so your gut brain senses something is wrong but cannot tell you what it is.
Learning to Connect Deeply with Your Gut
Imagine that your belly is a pre-verbal baby crying hysterically, clearly suffering. If you have a functional gastrointestinal problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, then this is the psychology of your gut. Relating to your belly as though you are soothing and comforting your own crying infant is the kind of compassionate relationship with your body that begets healing. When we are deeply present with and connected to ourselves, only then we can hear what our sensations and symptoms are communicating to us and make some sense of our symptoms. With greater awareness and less reactivity, we can appropriately respond to our needs, urges, wants, impulses, and wishes.
Healing is a Process of Discovery
Healing from IBS or any other functional medical/gastrointestinal problem is a process of self-exploration and discovery that involves learning how to attune and attend to yourself, to your body, and especially to your nervous system. When you can find compassion for your body amidst the pain and stress of your symptoms, your nervous system can settle, allowing your body to experience greater ease. In doing so, you give your nervous system the break it needs to unhook from the automatic, habitual patterns that generate and perpetuate your body’s suffering. While this likely will not stop the symptoms from happening, it will provide relief so that you can start to study the ebb and flow of your symptoms and discover what is really driving them.
Jennifer C. Franklin, PhD
Open Door Therapy
Licensed Psychologist in NC and CA
(CA: PSY 20709 / NC: 4137)