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Psychotherapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Feature, Gut Health & IBS | April 13, 2020

A young girl feeding her father a nutritious homemade sandwich.
Psychotherapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Featured Image

Have you ever been told that IBS symptoms are all in your head? Do you feel like you have no control over symptoms? Are your symptoms distressing and unpredictable?

IBS symptoms can be a challenge to deal with. The thoughts and fears can set off a cycle of distress that often just makes symptoms worse. We naturally want to easily control symptoms and make the uncomfortable sensation go away quickly. However, symptom management is a realistic goal for many.

One important way of managing symptoms is to look at diet and what foods may be triggering symptoms. The other component is stress management. This is where psychotherapy can be helpful – which is what I specialize in with Ignite’s digestive health patients! 

The Gut-Brain Connection:

Stress, thoughts, and experiences can have an impact on our gut’s ability to function. This is due to the gut-brain connection through the main communication highway, the vagus nerve.

We are programmed to look for threat, avoid pain, and prevent harm. When the gut sends signals consistently up to the brain saying “we are not okay”, the brain starts to anticipate and look for ways to predict and avoid danger. Unfortunately, these symptoms can be difficult to predict, and we often don’t have much control, which our brain does not like!

As we have embarrassing experiences, discomfort, and a feeling of being unwell, the mind starts to engage the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response) more often. When this system is activated regularly, our gut irritation often increases as the body moves into survival mode more often. The gut also plays an important role in our mood. This feeling of being unwell can also bring on feelings of depression or anxiety, which adds to the complexity of our mental health needs.

Psychotherapy can help your IBS symptoms. Our psychologist at Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta can help you manage your stress and ease your IBS symptoms.

How can therapy help manage IBS?

Therapy is a safe space to identify the stressors and learn skills to train the brain to respond from a place of calm rather than fear. Stressors can be external, internal, past experiences, automatic thoughts, or fears of the future.

Self-compassion and patience are important components of psychotherapy as we do explore discomfort, stress, and difficult emotions. We move slow and carefully to take care of the body and comfort it, rather than trying to push away, ignore, or numb what the body is struggling with.

We move slow and carefully to take care of the body and comfort it, rather than trying to push away, ignore, or numb what the body is struggling with.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for IBS

CBT and MBCT are therapies that look at how thoughts influence our beliefs and our behaviours. This therapy is mental gym training for the mind to be able to remain present, aware of thoughts without reaction, and action focused on what can be controlled in the present moment.

We identify automatic thoughts, patterns of thoughts and behaviours, and give you a different perspective on how your thoughts are driving the bus. We then can redirect to more helpful ways of thinking. We shift beliefs and reframe thoughts to encourage a different behaviour and pattern. You get to drive the bus, not your thoughts.

How does mindfulness help IBS?

The aim of the game is to manage stress levels and reduce symptoms but also to be able to calmly respond to IBS rather than impulsively react. We want to increase flexibility and adaptability to ever changing sensations, emotions, or thoughts. Mindfulness is about staying in the present moment, not in the future fear.

Mindfulness builds awareness of our thoughts because it strengthens the front part of our brains which controls attention, planning, and rational thinking. When we engage in many automatic thoughts and create imaginary stressors or fears by worrying about the future, our reactive part of the brain is being activated and a survival response is kicking in. When we catastrophize and imagine the very worst “what if” scenarios this triggers anxiety and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Mindfulness is an effective way to bring us back into our front brains and out of this survival mode.

By releasing some control and watching, we actually become more in control. It’s a skill that allows you to consciously watch what’s happening without reacting in fear or trying to shut down (become numb). You learn how to go with the flow, which reduces stress levels.


Somatic Therapies, Meditation, Yoga for IBS

Body based therapies are also routed in mindfulness practice and specifically those that work with increasing the vagus nerve functioning, will encourage this ability to regulate and hold discomfort without becoming fearful and anxious.

Breathing work and watching sensation through meditations can help strengthen our ability to remain calm (but alert). It also strengthens the ability to stay with mild discomfort and to trust the body again.

Meditation, yoga, and breathe work are great ways to build a strong functioning vagus nerve, reduce our stress, and remain mindful.

Psychotherapy in combination with medical and dietary support can be helpful in learning these skills in stress management. You can grow and empower yourself to be able to manage symptoms with more confidence and self-compassion. Having a psychologist walk with you during this exploration can be helpful in providing that safety where you can compassionately explore some of the fears and reactionary responses to build strength in regulation. Psychotherapy is much like a mental health gym and your therapist is much like your personal brain trainer. To get started with psychotherapy today, you can book an appointment with me (Kirsten) here!

Psychotherapy can help your IBS symptoms. Our psychologist at Ignite Nutrition in Calgary, Alberta can help you manage your stress and ease your IBS symptoms.

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