Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

On this page I’ll explain how and why psychotherapy and hypnotherapy are safe and effective treatments for IBS symptoms. I’ll explain some of the causes of IBS — how it relates to diet, lifestyle, stress, and even relationships. And then I’ll explain some of the techniques that I use to help my clients achieve lasting relief from the pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation that disrupt their lives. This page is long and contains a lot of information, so I won’t blame you if you want to just go ahead and call or email me to set up an appointment right away. If you’d like to learn more first, keep reading.

There are so many neural connections in your gut, researchers are calling it the “second brain.”

There are literally about a trillion neural connections in there. And each one of them responds to all the same sorts of things that the ones in your brain do. You probably already know that neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and GABA affect your brain in ways that control your thoughts and feelings… but did you know they do exactly the same thing inside your intestines?

Emotional experiences have a direct effect on our guts, and this is something we recognize intuitively:

  • When we describe a troubling experience as “gut-wrenching”
  • When excitement causes that feeling of “butterflies in the stomach”
  • When nervousness makes us feel queasy
  • When stress triggers heart-burn

The connection between the gut and the brain, which scientists refer to as the gut-brain axis, works in both directions.

Just thinking about food causes your digestive system to start producing and releasing the acids and enzymes needed to digest that imaginary food. This starts in your mouth. Just imagine sliding your tongue across a big, juicy, sour slice of lemon… feeling the sting of the acid as that strong sour flavor fills your mouth — and it’s likely you can feel the saliva starting to well up in your mouth to neutralize the acid of your imaginary lemon. This is happening all the way down your digestive tract, all the time.

And the gut sends strong signals to the brain as well. All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, the stomach has been thought to be the seat of emotion, and new studies are showing that gut health plays a profound role in psychological well-being. A number of studies have shown that the natural balance of bacteria in your intestines plays a large role in this, with probiotic supplements used to alter that balance causing changes in both brain neurotransmitter activity, and in behaviors related to anxiety and depression.

This two-way communication means that gastrointestinal disruptions like those seen in IBS bring about a lot of emotional problems. It also means that we can use psychological treatments to improve not only the emotional correlates, but also the actual disorder of the gut.

The standard of medical care for IBS is to attempt to simply address the symptoms without discovering or correcting the root causes. I find this completely unacceptable.

There are four main strategies that I use in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome

1. Lifestyle change & skill building

Skills like relaxation, stress management, assertiveness, dietary enhancement, and meditation can have a major impact on IBS symptoms by balancing your physical, emotional, and social well-being.

I use my scientific training to help patients conduct a personal experiment, discovering what aspects of your behavior have a real effect on the way you feel. And, through ongoing counseling, I help you maintain your focus and motivation to take control.

2. Cognitive therapy

The way that you think about your symptoms affects the way that you perceive them. Most people think that the amount of pain or discomfort that a person feels is proportional to the amount of tissue damage or inflammation. But that’s not actually the case — every person has their own level of tolerance for pain and discomfort. And by restructuring your mental approach to discomfort, you can actually increase your level of tolerance. That means you’ll perceive less discomfort, and won’t be as bothered by the discomfort you do feel.

This component of treatment, combined with the behavioral elements described above, comprise cognitive-behavioral therapy, which a number of clinical studies have shown to be effective for relieving the symptoms of IBS.

3. Insight-oriented psychotherapy

I’ve also found that certain kinds of people are more prone to this type of condition. They generally fall into one of two groups: people who have difficulty controlling their emotions, and people who control their emotions too tightly.

In either case, it is necessary to understand the origins of that predisposition, in order to reshape the dynamic way a person processes emotions. This type of therapy has a way of not only improving symptoms — but producing positive changes across many, often unexpected areas of life.

4. Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis is a highly undervalued psychological technique that makes it possible to achieve big changes quickly. It is renowned for its ability to bridge the mind-body gap, allowing for direct control of involuntary physiological functions. It’s also the single best, most empirically supported treatment for IBS.

The type of hypnosis used for IBS is called gut-directed hypnotherapy, which means the types of imagery and suggestions employed are focused very intentionally on influencing the inner workings of the gut. I generally adapt the University of North Carolina model of hypnosis for IBS, developed by Dr. Olafur Palsson, which has a very high level of scientific support for its effectiveness.

Mind-body psychotherapy is simply one component of your care that can help to enhance your body’s resilience, response to treatment, and rate of healing… as well as your emotional well-being. When you schedule your first appointment, I’ll ask you to sign a release form that will allow me to communicate with your physician, so I can coordinate with them to provide you the best care.

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