I’ve followed the diet so carefully, but I still get attacks of IBS, when everything I eat seem to upset me? Why does the pain always seem to get me on Monday morning? Why when I am looking forward to doing something, does diarrhoea always spoil it? Well, diet is never the whole story, your chimp may have a lot to answer for.
We are not always the sensible, rational beings we like to think we are. We are also emotional creatures. Just stop and think. How are your feeling right now? A little curious, perhaps a touch anxious or depressed, maybe just plain irritated. And how did you feel when you were at work or at that meeting, or when that red car came up behind you too fast on the motorway or your read those comments on Facebook. Things get to us, they affect us, day by day, even moment by moment. Our emotions change like the weather; the temperature drops, then rises, the sun comes out, goes in again, it starts to rain, a breeze blows in. And just like the weather, the isobars and fronts of emotion also affect the way our body feels and functions. Physiologists know that heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, the conductivity of our skin, the motility of our gut, the rate of absorption, secretion, excretion, immune function, blood flow, are never stable, even when we are sitting quietly doing nothing. Everything is changing all the time. And the reason is that our minds are never still and what we are thinking about moment by moment can affect the way we ‘feel’ and the way our body works. If you were ever to doubt how much emotion affects physiology, consider how sadness makes your tear glands weep and the sphincter at the top end of your gullet go into spasm and cause a lump in your throat, how fear seems to grip the heart or desire excite the very core of existence. Such phenomena occur in everybody, but sensitive people may feel them more.
Most of the time, we are unaware of what is going on inside. If we were, life would be intolerable. But from time to time, a train of thought is so personal and emotionally charged that it takes possession of us and we cannot let it go. And for people, who, for reasons of loss, trauma, injury or infection, are highly sensitive, these obsessive ruminations break the surface and wrench their guts out of kilter. Several of my patients have told me that their symptoms are like their fire alarm; they go off when something upsets them, which begs the question, ‘so why are spending so much time trying to silence the alarm with drugs or diet, instead of trying to put out the fire or prevent it catching light in the first place?’
Just as we are not always rational or sensible, neither are we a rattle bag of emotion. There is a constant communication between our rational self and our emotional self. Over the last twenty years, computerised brain imaging has identified the brain structures activated by emotion and discovered that these same brain areas also implicated in IBS, fibromyalgia and other ‘poorly explained’ medical conditions, but the science is new and reviews difficult to understand for mere mortals. We need a concept that we can all understand.
In 2012, Professor Steve Peters, the Sheffield psychiatrist who coached the British cycling team to success in Beijing, published The Chimp Paradox, in which he envisaged the more primitive areas of the brain that determine our emotional reactions as our ‘inner chimp’, that can so easily sabotage the human part of our brain that is in our forehead and able to take the time to think, plan, and negotiate, consider where others are coming from and see the bigger picture. Chimps come from the jungle, where their prerogative is survival, things are either good or bad and they have to be sorted out now. Chimps can’t think things through. They just react to situations. It they see something, they want it now! They are impulsive and selfish. They always see problems as somebody else’s fault and want to fight about it. The difficulty for us is that our chimps can react while our human brain is still thinking about it. Consequently, the human in us is always trying to catch up and settle our chimp down before he does too much damage. Chimps are poorly regulated. In the jungle, they either have to do it now or succumb to starvation, attack or abandonment, but in our human world where everything is available and there is so much happening, they eat too much, drink too much, don’t sleep that well, are often annoyed and feel unwell, but they can also have a ‘wicked time’ and put all the pictures on Facebook.
But we can’t keep our inner chimp locked away. Chimps love to play and have fun and as long as our inner human remains calm and stops chimpy getting over-excited, he can be a lot of fun. Chimps need to be contained and trained. If this sounds a bit like managing your children, it is. Toddlers are 90% chimp. It may take another 20 years before their human brain will develop enough to keep their inner chimp sufficiently contained to exist productively in society. But chimps do have a tendency to break out especially if life has been hard. The real trouble comes when those, we have elected to keep our societies together, our leaders and politicians, can’t even contain their chimps.
So when your IBS is playing up, ask yourself, What has happened to upset my inner chimp this time? And how do I calm him down? We have all lived in society long enough to know the answers, but they are still worth repeating.