Psychological Treatments for GI Disorders

The Gut Brain Connection

If you’ve ever had “butterflies” in your stomach, you know that the brain and gut are intimately connected. You might have experienced this phenomenon when you were anxious about giving a presentation, excited about an upcoming event, or when you first met your partner. Our gastrointestinal tract responds to our emotional state. When you are anxious, depressed, happy, joyful, or angry, your gut responds. This can lead to symptoms of GI disorders, such as diarrhea, heartburn, constipation, bloating, and cramping.

Our brain directly influences the function of the stomach and intestines. Alternatively, the GI system sends signals to the brain. This bi-directional pathway demonstrates the powerful influence that our minds have on our bodies. In fact, the gut is often referred to as the “second brain.” The brain and gut communicate via the complex pathways of the enteric nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamus-pituitary axis (HPA), and the central nervous system. Chemicals, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, constantly trigger changes that influence the gut-brain axis.

Functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) are the most common GI disorders with about 25% of the U.S. population experiencing these disorders. FGIDs refer to problems with the gut-brain interaction. People with this condition can have impaired movement in the intestines, heightened intestinal sensitivity, imbalance of mucosal function, or gut flora disturbance. The reference of “functional” means that there are no noticeable structural abnormalities. Thus, when a person experiences GI upset with no identifiable physical cause, psychological triggers are often to blame. FGIDs include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome, functional constipation, and functional diarrhea. Having an FGID can impair your quality of life. Carrying out daily activities, dissatisfaction with your healthcare, and concerns about your illness can interfere with your ability to live well.

The brain’s interpretation of events has a dramatic influence over our physical bodies, most notably our gut. People who struggle with FGIDS, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), often have symptoms when they are stressed or depressed. Therefore, psychological treatments may help to reduce IBS symptoms.

How Psychologists Help with GI Disorders

Anxiety, stress, and other emotions can trigger GI disorder symptoms. Several research studies have demonstrated that psychological therapies lead to a reduction in digestive symptoms. If you are looking for a natural approach to reduce GI disorder problems, psychological therapy may help you. For gut distress that is caused by mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, counseling can offer relief. Health psychologists are trained in treating health conditions that have an underlying psychological connection. The following four treatments have been shown to reduce symptoms of GI disorders:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on modifying your emotions, thinking, and behaviors to improve your psychological functioning. You will learn to change the way you think and behave so that distressing emotions will have less of an impact on your gut.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnotherapy focuses on making positive sub-conscious changes that will improve your overall functioning and well-being. You will be given specific suggestions involving improved digestion and distress tolerance. You can listen to hypnosis sessions multiple times until change occurs.
  • Stress management and relaxation therapies: Learning to relax and reduce your stress can significantly reduce digestive upset. When you practice effective stress management, your gut-brain connection will be less impacted by stressful situations. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that facilitates a physical relaxation response.
  • Lifestyle change: eating a nutritious diet will support your digestive processes. Working with your gastroenterologist or another healthcare provider, your psychologist will develop a diet that leads to a healthy digestive tract. You will learn what foods to eat and what foods to eliminate. Dietary changes are not easy to make, but with the proper behavioral guidance, you can incorporate these into your lifestyle. Additionally, incorporating exercise and quality sleep habits can improve your functioning.

Natural GI Disorder Therapy

If you are interested in starting psychological treatment for your GI disorder, Dr. Mazzei is here for you. She is a Health Psychologist who has helped many people overcome their GI distress. She will work with you to develop a treatment plan to address your concerns and get you on a path to a fulfilling and healthier life. She will coordinate care with your healthcare provider to ensure that your treatment will enhance any medical treatments. Please contact our office to ask any questions or to schedule an initial consultation.