One in five of us will experience irritable bowel syndrome during our lifetime, yet many of us think medication and lifestyle changes are our only options. But could hypnotherapy be the game-changer?
At some point or another, we’ve all experienced an upset tummy. The discomfort, the inconvenience, the embarrassment – but at least it’s temporary. Yet for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), symptoms can be sporadic, leaving many feeling anxious about when – and how – it could next flair up.
What causes IBS?
There’s still much we don’t know about IBS. While there doesn’t seem to be a genetic cause, the most common triggers can often be bouts of food poisoning or gastroenteritis. For many, once they have exhibited symptoms, other factors such as stress, eating at irregular times, or having an abnormal diet can all provoke symptoms. Over time, intense feelings of anxiety or stress can start to worsen symptoms.
What treatments are available?
Managing your diet is one of the most common recommendations made by GPs. By offering advice on what you should eat, or a referral to work with a dietitian, dietary management aims to try to identify trigger foods by removing them from your diet. As symptoms improve, foods can be reintroduced to your diet, until specific triggers are recognised. For those experiencing constipation, bulking agents such as natural bran, cereals containing bran, or laxatives such as fibre or senna may be recommended.
Medication – both over the counter and on prescription – works for a small number of people, helping to reduce bowel spasms or relieve constipation. However, this can be a case of trial and error.
Self-management of symptoms through the identification of trigger foods, improving your eating habits, and even accessing support groups to learn more about others’ experiences can all be common ways people seek to treat IBS. But are there other methods out there that could have a positive effect on physical and psychological symptoms?
Hypnotherapy for IBS
Hypnotherapy and relaxation therapy, while less well known, have been shown to be effective for some people experiencing IBS. A 2018 study published in journal The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology revealed that after just three months of treatment, 40% of those who had received individual hypnotherapy, and 33% who had undergone group sessions, reported relief from IBS symptoms, compared with just 17% of those who received supportive care and education. Plus, these benefits were shown to persist nine months later.
According to the study, those experiencing IBS who underwent hypnotherapy reported the greatest overall improvements with their condition. They felt more able to cope with and less troubled by symptoms, however, the severity of the symptoms themselves wasn’t reduced.
Hypnotherapy helps those with IBS by changing the communication between the gut and the brain
How can hypnosis help?
Hypnotherapy can be used to help teach relaxation techniques, as well as new ways of managing stress and anxiety. How we are feeling mentally can have a huge impact on our physical wellbeing. The better equipped we are with tools to help manage our feelings, and promote a sense of relaxation, the more we’re able to cope with other challenges that arise in our day-to-day lives.
“Hypnotherapy for IBS is often referred to as ‘gut-directed hypnotherapy’,” hypnotherapist Helen Brooks, also known as ‘the Tummy Whisperer’, explains. “It helps those with IBS by changing the communication between the gut and the brain. IBS can be caused by miscommunication within the gut-brain axis, which leads to symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, constipation and abdominal pain.
“Hypnotherapy corrects this miscommunication, reducing those symptoms, and also helping relieve non-colonic symptoms such as nausea, headaches, back pain, and sleep disturbances.”
The therapeutic use of hypnosis can have a huge impact, helping individuals to not only lessen symptoms and treat a variety of conditions, but also to change habits or alter automatic negative thoughts. Over time, we can learn negative behaviours or develop reactions to situations – or symptoms – that can cause us further discomfort. With the help of a hypnotherapist, we can access the unconscious part of our mind, making new, positive suggestions that can promote relaxation.
“Stress and anxiety can exacerbate IBS, and having IBS can cause stress and anxiety, creating a vicious circle that’s hard to break,” Helen explains. “Hypnotherapy helps by lowering stress and calming anxiety. It has been shown to be effective in patients who have failed to respond to medication and dietary changes. It's a lifeline for those who feel that they've exhausted all options. It's a well researched, safe, and effective treatment for sufferers.”
How to get started
If you have IBS and are looking for alternative ways to manage your symptoms, here Helen shares three simple techniques you can try right now.
- 7–11 breathing: Breathe in through your nose for a count of seven, inflating your belly and activating your diaphragm. Breathe out through your mouth as if blowing through a straw for a count of 11. Feel your physical tension releasing. This helps activate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, putting your gastrointestinal tract into a state of rest, and helping ease symptoms.
- Balloon deflation: If you’re feeling bloated, imagine a balloon deflating. Focus on the sense of relief and comfort you will feel. If you feel like you’re knotted inside, imagine knots turning to silk ribbons and unravelling, becoming smooth and untangled. You can create your own images to match your symptoms. Create a before and after image in your mind’s eye, and merge one into the other. Once you’re in a relaxed state, you can communicate with the subconscious mind through metaphor and imagery to create physical changes.
- Listen in: Deep relaxation can be a great starting point. Simple to do by yourself, this also activates the ‘rest and digest’ state.
To get you started, listen to Helen’s guided hypnosis for relaxation.
Finding help and support
Working with a qualified, experienced hypnotherapist to manage your IBS can help in a number of different ways. Depending on your individual needs, a hypnotherapist may be able to help you learn to recognise and cope with any worries or fears that may be making symptoms worse. Helping you to increase your confidence and overall sense of wellbeing, a hypnotherapist can also assist with setting goals, or use visualisation to decrease your gut sensitivity.
Learning self-hypnosis techniques can help you to continue to see improvements between sessions, while audio clips created by your hypnotherapist may also be useful between sessions, to aid with motivation and continued progress.