Why the type of psychotherapy matters when treating IBS

Given that around 10 percent of the world’s population has irritable bowel syndrome, it is no surprise that treatment for the condition has been a frequent subject of research. Based on that research, we already know that psychotherapy is just as effective as medications in reducing the symptoms of this sometimes-debilitating gastrointestinal disorder.

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Now, new research out of Vanderbilt University has examined different types of psychotherapy used to improve the quality of life of IBS patients and found that cognitive behavior therapy was the most effective. CBT is a term for several different therapies that focus on the idea that thoughts, feelings, physiology and behavior are interrelated. Treatments are focused on helping people develop and use different ways of thinking and behaving in order to reduce psychological distress and accompanying physical effects.

“Evaluating daily function is important because it distinguishes between someone who experiences physical symptoms but can fully engage in work, school and social activities and someone who cannot,” said Kelsey Laird, a doctoral student in Vanderbilt’s clinical psychology program.

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IBS patients who received CBT showed greater gains in daily functioning than any other type of psychotherapy. According to the researchers behind the study, this may be because CBT often uses “exposure” — a technique involving gradual exposure to uncomfortable situations. For people with IBS, this could include long car trips and going places where restrooms are not easily accessible.

“Encouraging individuals to gradually confront such situations may increase their ability to participate in a wider range of activities,” said Laird. “But more research is needed before we can say why CBT appears more effective for improving functioning in IBS compared to other therapy types.”

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