This is the February edition of the series I am doing with Grounded Nutrition where we are highlighting a different body system every month and giving specific dietary, supplementation, spirituality and holistic living advice. If you would like to sign up for the four e-mails we will send out/month, you can do so here!
This month is all about digestion - so here are my thoughts on how your spirituality ties into your digestion.
If you have been around the wholistic health and wellness world for a while, you have most likely heard of people espousing the idea that digestive issues can be a symptom of failing to ‘digest’ or ‘come to terms with’ that which is going on in your life at large.
More specifically issues such as constipation, loose stools, indigestion and inflammation in the gut can be signs and symptoms of having issues letting things go, having issues receiving nourishment, love and support and generally rejecting what is happening to us in our experience, seeing it as something that has harmful and negative rather than helpful and supportive.
These ideas are wonderful to look at as many of us are not aware of how deeply the psychological and emotional aspects of our lives can affect the physical vessel. But when we take a few moments to think about it - of COURSE the emotions and what we are thinking about are going to be translated into physical symptoms. We know that the body is constantly sending and receiving messages to and from the brain, and these messages inform the body about the specific chemical soup (hormones, neurotransmitters, digestive juices, enzymes and so on) that needs to be produced at any given moment to best ensure physical survival. The link between our bodies and our emotions cannot be understated and the emotions are largely dictated by both our conscious and unconscious beliefs about ourselves and our world.
It’s all connected you see.
Stress And Your Digestion
If we take this idea of struggling to digest your life a little farther, we can see that in any case where we are perceiving the outside world to be antagonistic to our health and happiness, we are going to go into a fear or stress state. We know scientifically that when we are in a state of fear/stress the body is thrown into a very specific biochemical zone that drives the physiology to be all together different from what it would be in a state of calm and rest.
When we are in a state of stress, the body ‘thinks’ that there is physical danger afoot.
Your body cannot tell the difference between a physical threat, a mental threat, an emotional threat or a spiritual threat - to your physiology stress = something in the environment that must be either fought against or flee from.
In order to assist you in doing either of these two things the body will shut down digestive functions in order to allot more energy to the skeletal muscles, it will drive blood from the core of the body (where you are doing your digestion) to the limbs, it will give you laser like focus for a short period of time and it will dial down the production of any hormone that helps you to feel peace and ease.
When we are in a state of stress for a prolonged period of time (think longer than 30 minutes a few times a year) this stress response starts to take its toll on the body. The impaired digestive function over time will lead to worse and worse digestive issues, the stress hormones start to act like an acid in the system and this combination actually creates a bio-feedback loop which sends the body DEEPER into stress because the physical impairment of the stress response itself causes damage to the body signaling danger and thus igniting more stress.
Looking at our world today, we know that all the leading causes of illness and death are associated with stress.
Yet very few of us are actually fighting for our lives in any real physical sense.
So what’s going on here? Why are we all so stressed out? Why is this stress killing us? Why is it that we are more sheltered, affluent and able to survive than any other point in human history and at the same time all being killed by the effects of our survival instinct being overly activated?
Stress Is Normal
The main culprit here is that stress has become a lifestyle. Literally it is a way of life for most people. The high demands of living in today's world make it almost impossible to achieve any ‘rest and digest’ state at all.
We, generally speaking, are constantly running around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to juggle all the balls that come with careers, raising children, getting an education, maintaining a home, relationships, and trying to do what is ‘right’ with regards to the body. We are all doing our best to be wealthy, successful, caring, nurturing, available, thin, lean, glowing, in love, supportive, strong, resourceful, independent - and carrying it all off without breaking a sweat.
The expectation that comes along with being a success in today’s world is heavy. We really are having to be all things to all people - not only striving and thriving in one or two areas of life, but are expected to be reaching the top of our game in ALL areas of life at all times. Every day is expected to be a new kind of personal best - and if it isn’t it is expected to be a day where you are WORKING on achieving a new kind of personal best.
We are all looking for that ever elusive ‘you’ve done it’ award. The ‘you’ve made it, you can relax now’ prize. Everyone is looking to everyone else to let them know what success is, looking to garner some sense of approval and support, always striving to be noticed and validated - and the fact of the matter is this validation pretty much never comes. And even if it does, that just sets the bar for how much more amazing you are expected to be tomorrow.
This is incredibly stressful.
The rat race as it is called has all of us running on a treadmill that essentially goes nowhere. Always striving, never arriving. Always looking for that hit of approval and never feeling satisfied even if it comes for a moment or two - because on its tail will always be the reminders of where you have yet to go, the heights you have yet to attain and where you are not living up to this level of success in other areas of your life.
Due to this incredible expectation that never ends - we find ourselves in a state of constant stress as a society.
Everyone is looking for someone to tell them they are good enough, they have done enough, they have achieved enough - but the problem here is - no one is the one handing out this praise. We are all looking for it from the outside, not realizing that to everyone else WE are the outside. Meaning there is no authority handing out these golden medals of societal approval. We get it in bits and pieces from bosses, mentors and friends every so often, but that ultimate stamp of approval never comes because there is no one handing out those stamps.
Which is why digestive issues can be - and most likely are - self worth issues.
Your Self Worth And Your Gut
When you are in this state of constant striving, constant comparison, constantly needing to fix, change, improve and better yourself - you are in a state of stress. And if you are doing this, if you are in this state of stress it is because you do not fundamentally believe you are good enough as you are. You don’t have a fundamental sense of self worth that permeates your being, allowing you to be on be on a journey of self discovery - always learning, growing and changing - without making all that growth and change mean that there is currently something WRONG with you.
This feeling like there is something wrong with you brings with it the primal fear that you are going to be excommunicated from the group. That to miss hitting whatever arbitrary or not so arbitrary mark you feel you must hit in order to be ‘good enough’ is to be in danger of literally being rejected by your society. Most of us equate this being rejected with death.
This existential fear of being isolated, alone, without love and approval is what is driving most of us to keep up with all the demands of perfection the society places on us without ever batting an eye or questioning why we are doing it. We will do anything - anything at all - not to be seen as unloveable.
Another thing to recognize here is that with all the demands of perfection and achievement that abound in our culture today, there is an equal and opposite belief in being victims we must also contend with. We never actually want to become too powerful, too successful, too happy, too peaceful - because then WE are the ones who are abandoning society and in that we feel the sting of rejection again.
So we live in this liminal space of being constantly stressed, constantly on the quest for perfection but never reaching it, always in a state of struggle and strife - so that we can fit in. This is what the society demands, and this is what we are ALL buying into.
Unchecked Stress Turns Invisible
When this goes unchecked, we will essentially be in a state of fear 24/7. Every deadline at work is going to feel like a risk of rejection and death. Every fight with a friend will feel like possible isolation. Every goal met can feel like sticking your neck out to be lobbed off by those who think you have gotten too big for your britches. There literally won’t be a single thing you do - not even that yoga or meditation retreat you are doing because you ‘should’ being how it is an excellent ‘self improvement’ thing to do will let you off the hook - as everything has an underlying motivation of fear.
With all the stress, your gut is going to suffer.
Being in this state of ‘fight or flight’ as often as we are as a society means that most of us are not in any way giving our bodies a chance to properly digest anything we are eating. We are too busy trying to fit in, and the threat of not fitting in is ever present, which signals to the body that the threat to our survival is ever present, and thus we must be in fighting form at all times. The tension held in the gut due to all this striving is often so ‘normal’ that it goes unnoticed until something larger symptomatically happens that alerts us to the discomfort. In these cases most of us just pop a pill or look to some form of herbal or holistic treatment, never peering into the depths of WHY we are feeling so out of whack in the first place.
It’s really no wonder most of us have something going on in our guts.
But There’s Good News
We don’t have to keep living this way if we don’t want to.
First things first - rather than just reading this as an intellectual exercise - I want to invite you to pause for a few moments to really consider what I am saying and if/how it applies to you and your life. Think about your job, your relationships, your daily ‘to-do’ list - and tune into your body as you bring these things to mind.
Really feel into your gut specifically - do you feel tension? Strain? Stress? If I were to invite you to fully and completely relax your gut so that you can breathe all the way in and all the way out - no constriction or contraction - can you do it? Does it feel totally weird to try? Does it feel like a fully different state than your norm to do so? Can you identify in yourself the fear of not being good enough, not measuring up, always striving never arriving - and see how this may be playing into any digestive tension and therefore upset that you may have?
If so, you have just given yourself the ticket to health and wellness.
This awareness in and of itself is massively powerful for turning this stress ship around.
Now that you can see and feel what it feels like to be in a state of stress over your perceived level of acceptance in your current life - you have the power to start to shift your state.
From here - can you notice all the places you are striving and stressing? All the areas in your life where you are telling yourself you are not good enough? You better try harder? So and so is expecting such and such from you and if you let them down there is sure to be a catastrophe? Can you notice all the expectations you have bouncing around in your head - and can you feel their effect on your body?
Now with all of this awareness - rather than rushing to try to ‘fix’ this about yourself - only adding to the never ending self improvement to do list - can you simply give yourself permission to say it is ok that you are where you are right now? That it is ok that you have stress? That it is ok that you are worried about what others think of you? Can it be ok - even just in this moment - to be who, what and where you are? Can you make room for the stress and all its symptoms - and thank it for being there? For working so hard to protect you? For doing its job?
If you can make room for this tension, if you can allow yourself to make it ok to feel how you feel right now - stress and all - you may notice that some of that stress naturally melts away on its own. You may notice yourself fighting with the idea of letting yourself be ok with who and what you are in this moment, thinking it could not possibly be ok to allow yourself to stay in this state of stress - but again notice what that kind of thinking does to you. It most likely ties you back up in knots. Where as the giving yourself permission to be in this state right now actually allows you to shift your state a little. Funny how that works now isn’t it?
From here, you can carry this practice forward throughout your day. Take a few moments periodically to simply tune in with yourself. Notice how you are feeling. Notice the tension and strain that you are holding in your body and particularly your gut - and then send yourself the message that it is ok to be who, what and where you are right now. Just this is all it takes to shift your state. You giving you permission to be.
If you take this practice to heart, you will notice you don’t become a slacker in life. You won’t get a giant head either. Neither of your worst fears will come true. All that will really happen is you will start to be able to live your life in a state of relaxation every once in a while. You will notice that you all of a sudden become the authority that was wielding that stamp of approval - and you will start to notice how good it feels to give yourself that stamp.
If you really take this on, you may start to notice that there are things in your life you can let go of. That there are expectations and obligations you no longer need to meet because you are giving you the approval you thought you needed from living up to those expectations. You cut out the middleman. Your life may just become simpler, easier and more free.
But no need to rush. Allowing yourself to be ok with who, what and where you are in this moment a few times a day is all it takes to shift your state.
You are already good enough. Your gut is telling you the tension is unnecessary.
Are you going to listen?