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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome

I recently found this article from the Psychology Research and Behavior Management Journal. I found myself curious about how other healthcare disciplines treat a diagnosis that often presents in conjunction with pelvic floor dysfunction. Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, affects nearly 35 million Americans. It is considered a ‘functional’ condition meaning that symptoms occur without structural or biochemical pathology. There is often a stigma with functional diagnosis that the symptoms are “all in their heads”, and while there are many theories about what predisposes individuals to IBS, the experts now think of IBS as a “disorder of gut brain interaction”. Generally, there are 3 subtypes of IBS where people note either constipation dominant, diarrhea dominant or mixed. In order to be diagnosed an individual must report abdominal pain at least 1 day per week in the last 3 months which is related to stooling and a change in frequency or form. Other symptoms that are common are bloating, nausea, incomplete emptying, and urgency.Counselor Consultation

The author suggests a biopsychosocial framework to help understand IBS. An interdependent relationship between biology (gut microbiota, inflammation, genes), behavior (symptom avoidance, behaviors), cognitive processes (“brain-gut dysregulation, visceral anxiety, coping skills”), and environment (trauma, stress). The brain-gut connection by a variety of nerve pathways is how the brain and gut communicate in either direction; top down or bottom up. Stress and trauma can dysregulate gut function and can contribute to IBS symptoms.

Stress affects the autonomic nervous system that contributes to sympathetic (fight/flight) and parasympathetic (rest/digest). Patients with IBS may have dysfunction with autonomic nervous system regulation. Symptoms of dysregulated gut function can present as visceral hypersensitivity, visceral sensitivity, and visceral anxiety. Visceral hypersensitivity is explained as an upregulation of nerve pathways. The author sites studies that note that IBS patients have a lower pain tolerance to rectal balloon distention than healthy controls. Visceral sensitivity is another sign of upregulation where IBS patients have a greater emotional arousal to visceral stimulation and are less able to downregulate pain. The author notes that the IBS population show particular patterns of anxiety with visceral anxiety and catastrophizing. Visceral anxiety is described hypervigilance to bowel movements and fear avoidance of situational symptoms. For example, fear of not knowing where the bathroom is located.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be an effective treatment to decrease the impact of IBS symptoms. CBT is focused on modifying behaviors and challenging dysfunctional beliefs. CBT can be presented in a variety of ways, however most include techniques consisting of education of how behaviors and physiology interplay for example the gut and stress response; relaxation strategies, usually diaphragmatic breathing and progressive relaxation; cognitive restructuring to help individuals see the relationship between thought patterns and stress responses; problem-solving skills with shift to emotion focused strategies (“acceptance, diaphragmatic breathing, cognitive restructuring, exercise, social support”) instead of problem focused strategies, and finally exposure techniques to help the individual slowly face fear avoidance behaviors. So much of the techniques are similar to what pelvic floor therapists try to educate our patients in. It is reassuring to me that through we may be different disciplines we are on the same team are moving towards the same goal. The author recommends a 10 session treatment duration, and notes that may be a barrier for some. Integrated practice with other healthcare professionals is also recommended. The more we can know about what our other team members are doing to help support patients the more effective we all are.


Kinsinger, Sarah W. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy for patients with irritable bowel syndrome: current insights” Psychology research and behavior management vol. 10 231-237. 19 Jul. 2017, doi:10.2147/PRBM. S120817

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