How meditation helped my Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Mindfulness and Meditation have featured high on the list of health buzzwords over the last couple of years – and for good reason.

A rising stress level can have a strong and negative affect on your gut health thanks to the Gut-Brain Axis (the ways through which your gut and brain are connected and directly affect each other), and meditation is a great tool you can use to help tame it.

Here’s my story of how meditation helped me following my IBS diagnosis.

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Meditation and yoga: why though?

Of all the things I’ve been ambivalent about trying in my life, yoga and meditating have always been near the top of the list. I vividly remember the annoyance level at Uni when the yoga class’ savasana would – without fail – over-run into our practice time in the hall. When we spilled out of the changing room and onto the court it would be covered in mats and comatose people, like some really comfortable silent protest.

I got over the yoga thing a long time ago after working at a charity with after-work yoga classes. Giving it one shot I realized that oh man…this is actually difficult workout.

Meditation, however…well, that took me a little longer to get to grips with. I’d heard so many times that it could help stress-related IBS symptoms, but I held so many misconceptions about it that I’d built up massive resistance to giving it a go. I thought that you were supposed to ‘empty your mind’ and ‘not think’ (wrong), or that you had to dedicate at least half an hour to it (wrong) or that it was purely a spiritual practice (for some maybe, not not always).

Unsurprisingly, none of those things are actually true.

Why I finally gave meditation a go

In the end, it was a whim and a Metro article that led me to begin meditating. Months after my IBS and Coeliac diagnoses, whilst on my way to work, I saw a small article about Headspace, the app. I read it, but, didn’t think much about it until that evening when, feeling a little frazzled from a tough day, I threw caution to the wind and downloaded it to my phone.

And I sat.

And I waited.

There were no fireworks. No immediate abatement of stress or symptoms, but I felt that tiny bit better when I opened my eyes. And because at the time Headspace ran a 10 day structured trial, I thought… let’s see if I can see these ten days through.

How meditation helped my IBS

For a bit of backstory, I had an issue in those early days of healing: I couldn’t lie completely flat on my bad without my stomach feeling uncomfortable. I always had to have my knees drawn up to my stomach if I was lying down (or sometimes even sitting upright), and despite having cut out gluten a few months prior, my stomach still had what I would describe as an uncomfortable ‘grippy’ feeling.

As luck would have it, meditation solved that issue for me!

It turns out a key feature of the Headspace beginner mediations is a Body Scan – mentally scanning through the body from head to toe, to better understand how your body feels in that moment. And after a few days I began to realise: I was constantly tensing my stomach muscles. In fact, I had been doing it for so long (as an automatic reaction to the nausea I had felt) that I just didn’t realise I was doing it any more. Until now.

As each day and each 10 minute meditation session passed, I began to notice when I was clenching and take a few minutes to breathe deep and release the tension in my muscles. As the days went by I got better and better at it, until eventually, that awful ‘grippy’ feeling disappeared.

Thanks to meditating, the last painful symptom that I hadn’t been able to get to the bottom of, was revealed and resolved. It took me a few weeks more of meditating to reprogramme the habit of a few years, and even now my stomach muscles are the first things to tense whenever I get stressed. But now I recognize the feeling for what it is: and I have the tool to ease it.

Meditation and IBS anxiety

That was the first way meditation improved my life. The second was this: unbeknownst to me, I had built up some pretty strong anxiety around eating out, especially at new places. I don’t know at what point I noticed, but I realized I had stopped doing anything late into the evening, and stuck to the same restaurants over and over when meeting friends, turning down invitations when anywhere new was introduced to the mix. I started to get a bit frustrated with myself: my mid-to-late twenties were not a time to be hibernating!

Now, there may be other apps with similar programmes, but as I was on the Headspace train, I gave their month-long Anxiety pack a go. And I don’t know how, and I don’t know why, but it somehow opened up my whole mind. It gave me a couple more mindfulness tools to help me notice when I began spiraling down into a negative thought train, and to step back and let it go. It helped me notice my then automatic stances to being asked to go somewhere different or try something new, and question why I felt that way. To say it was a breath of fresh air for me, is the understatement of the year.

I appreciate that meditation may not be the only solution to anxiety for a lot of people, and I would urge anyone who is feeling anxious to visit their GP and get in touch with charities like Mind.

4 meditation apps for beginners to try

I harp on about Headspace a lot, but there are plenty of other meditation apps out there that people use and love. Here’s four top meditation apps for beginners to give a go:

Two I’ve tried myself:

Headspace: I personally love this app, started by former monk Andy Puddicombe. As a complete meditating noob, I found the guided meditations perfect and the explanations of what meditation and mindfulness are super helpful. At around £10 a month, the paid part of the app is quite pricey, but content is definitely worth it to me. You’ll find different length meditation courses to help you with everything from anxiety to creativity, to better sleep. I love that they have individual meditations to help calm you for specific situations like if you’re an anxious flyer, or have a big presentation, or have a difficult conversation coming up. Genius!

Insight Timer: This app has over 15,000 free meditations (!) with plenty of different teachers and guides, so finding a meditation course to suit you should be a cinch with this app. It’s even multilingual! I do find the app a little cluttered, but I have one or two meditations on it that I return to again and again.

Two I haven’t fully tried myself:

Calm: 7 days for free, and then a yearly £35 subscription, Calm is a popular meditation app. Opening it up, you’re asked to identify your meditation goals (build self esteem, develop gratitude, etc). As well as guided meditations it has soothing sleep stories read by people like Stephen Fry and Matthew McConaughey, and lots of peaceful/soothing soundscapes.

However, signing up on the iphone means validating the app to continue with the purchase if you don’t cancel the 7 day trial in time – so make sure you don’t get stung for £35 if you’re not sure you want to move forward with the subscription!

10% happier: Another 7 day free trial and £87.99 per year after that, the vibe I get from this app is it’s for people who are a little bit skeptical of the whole thing, brought to us by the author of “10% Happier”, Dan Harris. The app is clearly laid out and is completely no-nonsense in its language (the ‘mental mischief’ section has meditations for ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ and ‘happiness for grumpy people’…). So if you’re looking for a very down to earth meditation experience, this might be the app for you.