Hypnosis and the mind-gut connection to IBS

Katie Fisker has been packed for a few days. Sitting by the front door are boxes of supplies, a laundry basket filled with clothes, and another box reserved for her printer, laptop, and other devices. Instead of feeling excited, however, the Lake-in-the-Hills, Ill. resident has been hesitant about going back to school. The uncertainty and fears surrounding the pandemic has made the experience stressful, triggering her IBS-D.

The angst most people are feeling is natural — whether they're going back to school or to work. They worry about being in a confined space, wonder if safety protocols are being followed, and contemplate whether or not to confront others about mask etiquettes.

Until a vaccine becomes available, keeping anxieties in check can be difficult. Since stress and anxiety tend to affect the gut, the editors of IBS Life reached out to James “Jed” Foster Jr., MA, LMFT. Foster is a licensed therapist and behavioral coach for Comprehensive Gastrointestinal Health, an innovative GI practice located in the Chicago area.

Foster has been helping patients manage their anxieties through a variety of techniques for nearly 10 years. He says that the key reason why stress has such an affect on the gut is because of the mind-gut connection, a relatively new thinking in IBS therapy.

The mind gut connection is how the brain, gut, and microbiome communicate, according to Foster. There’s mounting evidence that the gut microbes are in constant communication with the brain and these microbes may affect how people feel physically and emotionally.

“When a person feels stressed, the brain releases cortisol, which tells the digestive system to react,” said Foster. “The expression ‘butterflies in the stomach,’ is actually the brain-gut reaction to a high-stress situation. Many people with IBS perceive pain more acutely because their brains are more responsive to pain signals from the GI tract, and stress can make existing pain feel worse.”

To combat the mind-gut reactions to stress and anxiety, a growing number of therapists and GI specialists have begun advocating for the use of hypnosis in managing IBS. Gut-directed hypnotherapy is an innovative approach to treating IBS symptoms triggered by emotional stress. Pioneered in 1984 at the University of Manchester in the U.K., this form of hypnotherapy has been shown to significantly reduce pain and slow gut motility.

According to a growing body of research, hypnosis addresses the subconscious, cognitive-affective components of gastrointestinal pain. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, patients who undergo mind-gut hypnotherapy have a positive response rates ranging from 53% to 94%. Additionally, the benefits of hypnotherapy in IBS can also last 6-, 10-, or even 12-months long.

To Foster, using gut-directed hypnotherapy with patients have been some of the most rewarding experiences in his career.

Since not everyone can quickly take advantage of hypnotherapy—especially when in the school setting, Foster suggests individuals try cognitive behavioral therapy or repetitive thought processes, such as the following:

1. Exercise or movement - The simple change of air or space can help shut down stress, stabilize cortisol and elevate your mood

2. Sensory experiences - Taking a warm bath, cooking, or any other activity that uses your senses can help distract the body and slowly stop stress.

3. Diaphragmatic breathing - Put one hand on your chest just below your throat, and one on your belly, make sure your bottom hand is sticking out more than top. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes.

4. Immersive TV shows or movies - Some TV shows or movies are so immersive, they can help you forget where you are which calms the body down and reduces stress.

5. Avoiding the news - Obviously stay in the know about what’s happening, but do not spend hours on end watching or reading the news online.