Research shows that many people suffering from chronic illnesses (such as IBS) perform less well in memory, attention span or spatial ability tests than healthy people. One explanation is that worry and concern about illness (typically shown by people with chronic illnesses) uses up working memory resources leaving less for other tasks.
It is hard not to worry and some people worry (‘ruminate’) about worrying, which only makes it worse. Professor Brosschot, working in Holland, believes that worrying activates processes in the brain that makes you have a heightened bodily perception. Normally, you might not be aware of low-level symptoms, but once rumination takes place symptoms will become more noticeable.
As memory is extremely limited in both capacity and duration, any additional cognitive load imposed by illness-related worrying may affect memory, thinking and problem solving. Previous research has shown that healthy people who ruminate tend to score worse on memory tests than those who don’t, so it seems likely that rumination might also be the cause of memory problems in people with chronic illness who worry about their illness as well as their ‘normal’ worries.
Our study used tests of IQ and memory, and completion of questionnaires measuring rumination, anxiety, illness-related worrying and depression to measure memory span and rumination.
Participants were asked to complete a number of tasks such as being shown a sequence of letters or digits on a computer screen, trying to remember them, and then repeating the sequence. They were also asked to what extent they felt they were ruminating during the tasks.
People with IBS worried more – both on general worries and illness-related worries – and
ruminated more than healthy people. This result was unsurprising. Depression scores were similar in both groups – which was a surprising finding, since people with chronic illness normally score higher on depression than healthy people.
Healthy people did better on remembering
sequences of digits than people with IBS although the differences were slight. The more people worried, whether they were worrying in general or about their health (whichever group they were in) the fewer digits they could remember, and the lower their IQ! Although both groups had above average IQs (113–118).
How can we stop ruminating?
Worrying and ruminating over our symptoms and problems doesn’t do us a lot of good – but how do we stop it? The following is a summary of the
advice given in Take Control! Insights into IBS.
• Set a specific time in the day for worrying! Professor Broschott found that if you tell yourself not to worry now but to do so at 6pm tonight, this gives you permission to worry later. If the worry surfaces during the day, you can comfort yourself with the thought that you can worry later.
• Distract yourself – focusing on a symptom amplifies it, and it’s the same with worrying.
• Do something else which totally absorbs your attention – pain systems are partly inhibited when the mind is occupied.
• Meditation, focusing on your breathing, may also be useful in calming both body and mind.
From: Take Control! Insights into Irritable Bowel Syndrome by Christine Dancey (2005). TFM Publishing.
Reference: Attree, EA, Dancey, CP, Keeling, D & Wilson, C (2003) Cognitive function in people with chronic illness: Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Applied Neuropsychology, 10, 2, 96-104.
The IBS Network (formerly The Gut Trust)
Unit 1.12 SOAR Works
14 Knutton Road
Sheffield, S5 9NU
First published in 2008
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