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Self-blame and Self-silencing are Linked to Irritable Bowel Syndrome

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By Dr. Jeanette Raymond

Dr. Jeanette RaymondIrritable Bowel Disease makes Penny want to stay home
Penny woke up often through the night with abdominal pain and cramping. During the day she often felt bloated and uncomfortable. It messed with her appetite and eating routines. The constant tenderness in her gut made her afraid of going outside her home and work place. She worried about being near rest rooms. She was embarrassed about leaving events frequently to visit the rest room with no apparent relief. She never told anyone and pretended all was well.

Silence was Penny's best weapon against emotional abuse
Penny usually kept her feelings and opinions to herself. She had long since learned that the one sure fire way to avoid rocking the boat was to keep quiet. It wasn’t safe saying what she felt if it caused her mother to go into a tail spin and shower her with a spate of hurtful remarks that she was powerless to defend against. It was dangerous to play with her father’s wrath if she dared to speak for herself. The only times she did so resulted in being torn to shreds and then ignored for weeks. Taking the blame for things that went wrong in the family seemed to make everyone else accept her, and reduce the condemnations. Self-silence and self-blame were the only way to avoid the emotional abuse that came with expressing her feelings.

Looking good in public was Penny's ticket to feeling good
Penny felt good about herself as a professional that other people respected. She wasn’t going to let anything spoil that feeling of being admired and valued. She was the first to own the blame and fix problems at work. That was her insurance against nagging thoughts about what others may be thinking of her. It was like an automatic reflex that went into action the second someone she cared about was upset or angry. Self-silence and self-blame became Penny’s way of protecting herself against the sense of helplessness and worthlessness that came with emotionally abusive interactions

Irritable Bowel Syndrome was the culprit ruining Penny's life
Penny did a lot of research on her symptoms, altered her diet, took supplements and kept herself hydrated with water. She regulated her times of eating and made sure she fed herself regularly with small easy to digest meals. But nothing seemed to make a difference. It was time to consult with the experts. Penny’s nursing background came in useful. She knew who to talk to and what questions to ask. A series of tests ruled out Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Colitis, and Chrons disease.

The diagnosis was Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) of the constipation type. It is a functional disorder in that physical symptoms persist in the absence of any structural or biochemical abnormalities. Twice as many women as men suffer from IBS.

Penny was shocked and upset because it meant that there was no ‘cure.’ All she could do was ease the symptoms with medications when the flare ups were severe.

Research evidence on IBS and emotional abuse

  • An article in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine published in 2000 reported a strong link between emotional abuse and IBS among women.

  • IBS sufferers have a heightened need for social desirability (as reported by the Journal Gastroenterology in 1990, and the International Journal of Psychiatric Medicine in 1992).

  • Emotional abuse destroys self-esteem, so there is an increased need to look good, to be socially desirable. The need to have a good image conflates with the need to protect others from feeling bad, and triggers coping mechanisms like self-silencing and self-blame.

  • Self-silencing is a way of maintaining intimate relationships by silencing thoughts and feelings, resulting in a devaluing of the self. It is a way of avoiding emotional abuse.

  • Self-blame is another way of avoiding emotional abuse. It works by lowering self-esteem and accepting responsibility for negative events. Better to blame yourself than be skinned alive with abuse from so called loved ones.

  • Self-blame and self-silencing increase stress.

  • Stress hormones like cortisol exacerbate symptoms of IBS and reinforces the negative downward spiral.

Communicate feelings and thoughts for improved gastric health
  1. Penny can turn the tide for herself by taking the risk of speaking her mind.
  2. She can practice saying things that come into her mind to herself at first.
  3. Next she can write them down.
  4. Finally she can begin sharing one or two thoughts and feelings with trusted colleagues.
  5. Allowing others to share in the responsibility when things go wrong will make Penny experience a more realistic world, where she won’t have to protect herself against anticipated emotional abuse.

About the Author...

Dr. Jeanette Raymond is a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles. She specializes in helping people manage intense and uncomfortable emotions that cause stress and lead to symptoms in the body. She takes you from fear and frustration to fulfilling relationships.

Last Update: 8/12/2010

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