Treating IBS with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

By Dr. Becky Spelman


It´s estimated that up to 17 per cent of the population suffer from it and many more are going around undiagnosed. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a condition many of us have heard about but unless we suffer from it ourselves, have little understanding of. For those who have experienced the symptoms of IBS though – to varying degrees – this can not only be a painful and embarrassing illness, but one that can lead to severe disruption in our leisure and working lives.

So what is IBS and its symptoms and how can Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) help?

The condition involves irritation of the intestines and can result in severe stomach cramps, stomach bloating, constipation or diarrhea, flatulence and even nausea. Medicines exist to relieve the symptoms but in recent years more and more emphasis has been put on ´talking therapies´ in which CBT plays a very large part.

The reason psychological therapies are believed to help is because they can relieve stress and anxiety – both of which play a large part in contributing to IBS. The way CBT works is to get the patient to learn several strategies for reducing their anxiety state, coping with the symptoms of IBS, and learning to face up to situations which would normally result in stress and therefore trigger an attack of IBS.

Suggested treatments for IBS include:

  • Getting patients to keep a diary and monitor which foods make them feel worse after eating and what their emotional state was at the time of ingesting (eg anxious, happy, relaxed etc). They should also monitor how their symptoms are at times of stress. The patient can then look for and identify patterns. In doing so they are taking more control of the situation which should lessen anxiety and the resultant symptoms
  • The patient can be shown how to ´talk themselves down´from stressful situations ie consider the worst that can happen and rationalise how likely that would be. For instance if a would-be accountant fails a couple of exams she´ll perhaps believe she´s no good at the subject and should consider changing careers. In reality, perhaps the exams had been really tough that year and more than half the class failed. It could also be pointed out to her that she´d passed every exam up to that point
  • Encouraging sufferers to take more, and regular, physcial exercise and to change their diet to avoid foods with insoluble fibre (which will only serve to worsen their condition) such as wholegrain bread, nuts, cereals and bran. They should also restrict drinks with caffeine eg tea and coffee and limit alcohol. Fresh fruit should be cut back to around three pieces a day (avoid the skin and pips) and water is to be sipped on a regular basis.

The above are suggestions can suffers of IBS can employ.

However, they won´t necessarily work for everyone. Just as certain people are sensitive to particular foods, all IBS sufferes have their own idiosyncracies. It´s important to look at the condition using a holistic approach of which CBT is only one aspect, albeit an extremely important one.

Troubled by IBS? Still trying to decide whether Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the right therapy for you?

Call Dr. Becky on 020 8150 7563 or 075 1111 6565 for a free 15 minute confidential chat or to arrange an initial appointment.

If you wish to ask the writer of this article a question you can contact Dr. Rebecca Spelman here

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