If, however, someone experiences what might be described as a forced withdrawal from an emotionally charged situation, or if some sort of internal conflict occurs in which the natural response of aggression or fighting back is stifled for one reason or another, then an entirely different gastric reaction is noted. The stomach and the rest of the bowel become tense. Waves of contraction are very evident. A lot of excess gastric juice is produced which is also very strong and acid. If you look at a stomach (through a little tube called a gastroscope) at such times it looks very red and inflamed – hot and bothered (a bit like its owner).
Thus anxiety and stress have very definite effects on our insides generally. An overwhelming state of anxiety – seeing something very disgusting or offensive, the helpless feeling experienced when one suddenly realizes that something has been taken on that can’t be handled – is followed, as mentioned previously, by a total stoppage of the gastrointestinal tract, and with this functional collapse the victim may vomit or develop diarrhoea.
A similar reaction is seen too in the passive person who is full of hatred, defiance or contempt. On the other hand, those whose lives are tinged with anger and resentment, whipped by hostility or threatened by anxiety, react by an over-activity of the stomach with hunger pains, dyspepsia and acid indigestion looming large in their symptom complexes.
The natural logic of such digestive troubles in terms of the function of the body under stress is easy enough to understand. The massive shut down of the system in which nausea, vomiting and sudden diarrhoea are experienced is evidence of the body getting ready to fight or flee. The system then wants all its blood to be available for the heart, the circulation and the muscles, with survival in mind.
When gastric over-action is in evidence, the physiology is rather more complex. In a way it appears to be related to subconscious hunger and the desire to be fed and cared for. From its earliest days a baby learns to associate fear, anger and anxiety with hunger. When he is hungry the baby is experiencing the fundamental life stimulus – the desire to be nurtured and to survive. This being so, he also associates hunger with a feeling of being uncared for, being denied and rejected. He responds by expressing anger and primitive aggression in the only way he can, while all the time his little stomach is preparing itself for that moment that (hopefully) will soon arrive by means of an increased blood flow through the stomach and a higher gastric acid and digestive enzyme production. At this stage of anxious anticipation the inside of the stomach is potentially more fragile and may be easily damaged.
It is important to realize that all this is not some sort of physiological daydream of the scientist. It is backed up by solid evidence from a variety of sources. Whole populations in which sustained anxiety and tension is an outstanding component of their lifestyle suffer more dyspepsia, peptic ulcers and the complications of ulcers, such as perforations and haemorrhages, than do other less stressed communities.
The overall medical management of dyspepsia and peptic ulceration is not the subject of this book. Most simple isolated dyspepsias settle quickly and easily with the popular antacids sold at chemists; more troublesome ulcers, either suspected or proved, respond to more specific remedies, notably those that cut down on the amount of acid secreted by the stomach. Always it seems we have to pay for drastic alteration in the body’s internal chemistry through effective drug treatment by the development of side effects, some of which are unpleasant, dangerous or difficult to bear. (The drug totally without side effects is often a drug which is totally ineffective.) Sometimes, and often due to reasons that defy accurate assessment, treatment by medicines is ineffective in the management of peptic ulcers. In such cases surgery can have a lot to offer.
Relaxation, carefully learned and carried out on a basis that builds it into the lifestyle, has a great deal to offer in the management of dyspepsia and its sequel if neglected, peptic ulceration (except in cases where mechanical problems or complications dictate surgery). Anyone who finds their life being dominated by their stomach, what they eat and what they do, would do themselves a vast service by learning what the relaxation response has to offer.