Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for IBS
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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for IBS

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most well-studied and researched therapies a mental health professional can use.

It was originally designed to treat depression in the middle of the 20th century, but has expanded its scope since then. Now, CBT is widely used to treat a range of mental health disorders like anxiety, phobias, attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, personality disorders, and others.

In recent years, there has been increased interest in applying the psychological interventions of CBT towards physical health issues. Researchers and practitioners are having a better understanding of the bidirectional relationship between mental health and physical health symptoms.

This means that the physical affects the mental as much as the mental affects the physical. Physical health conditions like pain, asthma, hypertension, and diabetes are now being treated with CBT, usually in combination with other treatment options.

What about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? Could CBT really help IBS? Don’t let the acronyms overwhelm you. The answer is yes.

Here’s how CBT can help your IBS:

What is CBT?

CBT is a type of psychotherapy that centers on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This theory believes that they are all connected and interrelated, meaning that the way you think impacts your feelings and behaviors, the way you behave impacts your thoughts and feelings, and the way you feel impacts your thoughts and behaviors.

This doesn’t mean that you are bound by any of these, though. CBT believes that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are changeable and flexible. Just because you feel sad doesn’t mean that you have to think sad thoughts and behave in sad ways.

In this situation, a CBT therapist may encourage you to change your thinking to be more optimistic and change your behaviors to be more active and pleasure-seeking.

CBT works to place a level of power and control in your hands. This sense of autonomy aids your ability to resolve current issues as well as new complications as they develop.

Additionally, CBT is realistic about the facets of life that are beyond your control. You cannot change people in your family, your boss at work, or your past. Because of this, CBT therapy will provide ways to move you towards acceptance of these things.

With acceptance, you can change your thoughts in a way that acknowledges how these factors influence your symptoms while realizing that you have no ability to change them. Rather than being frustrated or hopeless, CBT will help you see the freedom associated with things beyond your control.

What Will I Do in CBT for IBS?

At the onset of CBT treatment for IBS, your therapist will work to gain a better understanding of your complaints, past history, and current situations to build a thorough case conceptualization that identifies your symptoms and their source.

Many people with IBS develop symptoms of anxiety due to the feelings of constant stress and worry that come with IBS. The therapist will work to determine what factors are contributing to this relationship.

If anxiety related to IBS is the primary concern, your therapist will focus on ways to modify your thoughts and behaviors to have a positive impact on your feelings. Interventions related to IBS-related anxiety include:

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Changing Self-Talk

As mentioned, a CBT therapist will pay particular attention to your thoughts and the things that you say to yourself. This is called self-talk. Everyone has a near-constant stream of dialogue with themselves throughout the day. Your job will be to pay more attention to it, and relay this information to your therapist.

Your therapist may determine that you have some flawed ways of thinking that are contributing to your anxiety. These are called cognitive distortions. Every person has some level of distorted thinking that is irrational and without basis.

For you, a cognitive distortion may have you believing that your IBS symptoms will cause major troubles for you if you leave your home. This will trigger an anxious response any time leaving the house is necessary.

Your therapist will help you to look at the evidence objectively to find a more beneficial way to think about leaving the house. This optimistic view can reduce anxiety while building confidence.

Relaxation Training

With a problem like anxiety from IBS, relaxation trainings will be a valuable set of tools to learn from your CBT therapist.

Relaxation techniques mark the integration of thoughts and behaviors to improve feelings because many techniques use changed thinking and new actions. There are a wide spectrum of relaxations like deep breathing techniques, autogenic training, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and others. Meeting with your therapist will allow you to have a set of interventions tailored to your symptoms and your lifestyle.

The best part of relaxation techniques is that, once you learn them, you can practice and perfect them on your own outside of the therapist’s office, meaning the time you actually spend in CBT can be relatively short, but have long-term benefits.

Behavioral Desensitization

People with IBS routinely avoid going unfamiliar places or outside of their comfort zone due to fear of a negative experience. The changed self-talk will help, but behavioral desensitization can result in major improvements. Desensitization is the act of purposely expanding your comfort zone through a course actions meant to spark your symptoms.

If going to restaurants creates anxiety, your desensitization could start by walking into a restaurant, staying for a few minutes, and then leaving. From there, you can order food for take-out another day, and stay for a drink during your next trial.

Each time, you will take your abilities another step until you are eating a full meal without fear of symptoms presenting. Your therapist will help to you establish your goal and the steps needed to accomplish it.

Learning Acceptance

A CBT therapist will help you to accept the things you cannot change. There will be times that your symptoms trigger problematic events. This will not change. What can change is your response to these situations.

Just because you accept your IBS does not mean that you have to like it. Consider the alternative, though. Since you have IBS, rejecting it means, on some level, you are rejecting yourself. Clearly, this will only produce more unwanted symptoms.

Your therapist will help you to plan for situations and scenarios when the plan does not unfold as expected. Through this, you can begin to accept the unexpected qualities of IBS while adding flexibility and a sense of humor to your situation.


Cognitive behavioral therapy is such a wonderful tool with a multitude of uses. Not only can using CBT for IBS be helpful, but it can be quick too.

Commonly, people find good benefit in as few as four sessions. That means you can be feeling better in a month, and finding acceptance of your IBS.

Learn more about treatments for IBS over at NewLifeOutlook.