Can CBT Therapy Help with IBS and GI Problems? Yes.

How can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy help me manage GI symptoms and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez

If you have ongoing GI problems like IBS, you’ve likely tried many things: dietary changes, medication, and lifestyle. Maybe these changes helped, but you’re curious about therapy, too. At the end of the day, you feel hopeless and overwhelmed by how IBS interferes with your life. Nausea, constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating, and gas. The canceled plans with friends, sick days, anxiety about dating or new sexual partners, and daily search for public bathrooms. The hyper-vigilance is exhausting and stressful.

We get it, and we have so much empathy for the disruption that IBS can cause.

Do I Really Need Therapy for This?

You may feel frustrated when people tell you to try therapy. You’re thinking, “You don’t understand—the problems are in my digestive system! I don’t have time to talk about my childhood right now.” We completely understand!  And we want to explain how therapy helps because we know how awful you feel. We think you might like the idea of CBT if we tell you how simple and direct it can be (and that it doesn’t require dwelling on the past).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Gets to the Point

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for IBS may not be the kind of therapy you see in the movies—lying on the couch and talking without any structure or input from your therapist is not an evidence-based therapy for IBS.

With CBT for IBS, we get to the point by teaching you skills. What kind of skills? CBT delivers skills that help you MANAGE THE CONNECTION BETWEEN YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR GUT.

Many research trials have shown this to be true: CBT helps you make new habits that reduce GI symptoms and improve quality of life. And it doesn’t take that long to start helping.

What Are the Skills?

“The skills are not difficult or complicated. Working with a therapist can help us learn new habits faster than trying completely on our own. ”

A key part of CBT is that a good CBT therapist will not only teach you about exercises and habits you can use to manage your IBS, but they will also motivate you to practice and hold yourself accountable. That’s the KEY and the reason why benefits of CBT last over time.

The skills are not difficult or complicated. Working with a therapist can help us learn new habits faster than trying completely on our own.

So what are the skills you’ll learn with CBT?

  • Create calm in your body. Learn how to use the on/off switch (the parasympathetic nervous system) for our body’s stress response. We are often in a state of fight/flight/freeze in response to stress. This stress response intensifies GI symptoms. Learn how to use the “off switch” to create a more calm state for your body and build this into your routine.
  • See your world with fresh eyes. Years of dealing with IBS can lead you to see the world with a distorted, negative lens. It’s understandable—life has been hard lately and you aren’t feeling optimistic. Practice being aware when your lens is skewing negative. This is called our attention bias, and CBT’s approach is powerful for opening your eyes to a broader perspective.
  • Think flexibly. If you’re struggling with IBS and feeling down, then your thoughts are likely to be more rigid and focused on the negative. That’s just the way our brains work, and you’re not to blame! A CBT therapist will help you create some thinking habits that allow you to see situations more flexibly. Doing so contributes to improved mood, lower anxiety, and better problem-solving.
  • Live more freely. For many, IBS means life gets smaller as the symptoms and body discomfort take over. CBT helps you be the boss of your life again and helps your world expand. No more being limited by having to plan ahead about bathroom access.
  • Practice self-compassion and asking for help. With these skills, you may notice more resources and support that you didn’t notice before. Or you may feel more self-compassion and engage in habits that cultivate joy, meaning, and care for yourself.  That could mean scheduling time to exercise or do something nice for yourself, or it could mean setting boundaries with toxic coworkers, friends, or family.

How to Find CBT for IBS

If you’re interested in trying CBT or would like more information, we suggest the following resources:

About Us

Therapy Lab is an evidence-based therapy platform offering treatment packages to help adults, teens, children, and families meet specific goals. With an upfront timeline, we prioritize structure, efficiency, and results. We measure clients’ progress as we go and apply science-based principles such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to the therapy process.

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