Soothing the Savage Gut

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) affects an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population in all countries of the world. The symptoms of IBS are stress-related—like most of the symptoms that send us to the doctor. As is usual with stress-related symptoms, we often come away from the doctor without a real solution to our problem, since neither the miracles of modern medicine nor following advice about dietary changes have much effect on what is causing the symptoms of IBS.

IBS symptoms lead to about half of all visits to gastroenterologists for expensive, extensive, unpleasantly invasive diagnostic testing. The point of this diagnostic rigor is to prove that you have harmless, even if debilitating, IBS, rather than what we think of as a “real” disease like ulcerative colitis, which reveals itself with physical changes in the gut. IBS, you see, reveals no “organic” cause for all that intestinal distress. After enduring all those sludgy enemas and high-tech peering up your fundament, you are handed what most sufferers think of as the worst possible diagnosis, however cloaked it may be in polite doctorese. “We can’t find any cause for your symptoms.” This dreaded diagnosis seems to translate to: “It’s all in your head.”

But it’s not ALL in your head, since this seemingly mental problem is reflected, most undeniably, in the behavior of your gut. It started “in your head,” though, and what’s going on there is what’s keeping your body in an uproar. Therefore, that’s what you’ll have to address to effect a cure.

Although IBS is known to be stress-related, here in the United States we persist in—ineffectively— investigating these symptoms and trying to treat them as though the problem were all in your guts. England, however, has a fifteen-year history of successful treatment of IBS using medical (also called “clinical”) hypnosis.

England is not a third world backwater where witch doctors practice, so why are we in the U.S., with little to no success at treating this extremely unpleasant syndrome, so slow to adopt a method of treatment that has a success rate of 85 to 95 percent, no side effects, is relatively inexpensive, and can be used safely by anyone of any age?

“I don’t like it, Captain!”

We don’t like the idea of hypnosis here in the land of the free. Two negative misconceptions are to blame for this lack of enthusiasm. People who have seen stage acts using hypnosis do not usually come away impressed with the mind’s power to influence the body. Either they think hypnosis is creepy and nasty—a frightening attempt to “control their mind.” Or they are convinced they are too intelligent or strong-willed to be able to “be hypnotized”—the implication being that only weak-minded, suggestible lack-wits are susceptible.

The fact is that all of us use the tools of hypnosis—strongly focused attention and intention—all the time. We just use them unconsciously, as we drive or wander through parts of the day in a trance, fixated on some imagined scenario or other, muttering suggestions to ourselves. Hypnosis is nothing more than a formal method for invoking and deliberately using this powerful tool of relaxed, focused attention. Maybe we would feel better about hypnosis if it were renamed something innocent sounding, like “guided imagery.”

In order to use hypnosis, or consciously focused attention, it is not required that you go to a licensed medical hypnotherapist. (I didn’t say you shouldn’t go to one—I only said it is not required.) You could go to any hypnotherapist to learn self-hypnosis, then simply purchase a recording related to your condition and use it in the privacy of your own home. Or you could just buy an IBS-specific recording and skip any human intervention. If you were to use your IBS-tailored recording faithfully, in the manner prescribed, expecting good results, you could, most likely, get good results.

However, there are definite benefits to seeking professional help. A hypnotherapist will explain how hypnosis works, answer your questions, address your concerns, tell you what you can expect, guide your initial efforts, discuss what else may be helpful in your individual case, and make appointments to follow up on your progress. If you choose to use a recording with no human intervention and do not get good results in three weeks, get professional help from a hypnotherapist.

How does hypnotherapy treat the symptoms of IBS?

It is important to understand that hypnotherapy is not something that is done to you’re your ability to access a state of relaxed focused attention is a skill you develop that becomes a tool for your use. Remember, you already use this ability to strongly focus your attention all the time; you just do so unconsciously. In fact, that’s how you created all this gastric distress in the first place: you focused your attention in ways that created a cycle of escalating tension until your body erupted in unpleasant symptoms.

Hypnotherapy for IBS uses specific “gut-directed” suggestions to program new expectations for how your intestinal tract should behave. It is assumed that, like biofeedback, this re-programming allows the mind to influence an area of the body we usually assume to be out of conscious control.

Learning to unknot your guts is more effective if you also learn how to keep from knotting them up again with your habitual reactions to stress. The small percentage of people who do not find hypnosis alone to be completely effective in enabling them to soothe their savage gut will find hypnotherapy works best in combination with cognitive therapy — which teaches you to develop a more optimistic thinking style and learn ways to cope with stress that don’t whip your insides into a frenzy.

Caveats and tips

If you research IBS on the Internet you will find quantities of information that can contribute to exacerbating your problems rather than helping them. You will find suggestions for keeping a symptom diary and plenty of discouraging information from those who insist that IBS is a chronic health problem with no cure. But a rule of mind-body health is “you get what you concentrate upon,” and scientific studies show that paying attention to symptoms increases them. That means in order to change your body for the better, you’ll want to implement a pragmatic attention focusing technique called “stop concentrating on what you don’t want!” For faster relief from your symptoms, avoid focusing on or obsessing about IBS, do NOT keep a symptom diary, and distance yourself from those who promote the belief that this is a chronic problem with no cure.

It should come as no surprise that people with IBS have a habit of disregarding signals of tension in themselves, and they typically respond to tense situations is ways that make them tenser instead of seeking ways to deescalate their tension. The message of the symptoms of IBS is that you are reacting to life in ways that cause you conflict and tension, and you need to find ways to relax. When you persist in ignoring or shoving aside these “gut feelings,” the communication from the interior gets turned up to undeniable volume with symptoms that are impossible to ignore.

If you are accustomed to tension as a response to problems in your life, you may be so conditioned to being wound up that you don’t notice it any more. In order to stop feeding your IBS symptoms, you will need to get back in touch with the signals your body sends and make different choices in response to signals that you’re feeling stressed. For example, you may be in the habit of eating in response to feeling stressed. But if you are feeling tense, exhausted, or upset, what your body really needs is relaxation and rest, not quantities of food.

Is it easier to take a pill than to learn to relax and respond differently to life? Of course it is. But it doesn’t usually work to end the habits of mind and body that cause Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Using hypnosis to reprogram body and mind works for about 95 percent of those who try it. It does not require much effort or time. All it requires is changing your mind.

Eternal vigilance is the price of health nuttiness

“The equipment used in connection with this operation will consist of the following items: 1 unopened newspaper; 1 sterile can opener; 1 large sterile plate; 1 sterile fork; 1 sterile spoon; 2 sterile brushes; 2 bars of soap; sterile paper towels.” This is the beginning of a long memo from Howard Hughes on how to…

I’ll Have Mine with Self-Improvement on the Side

A popular cholesterol-lowering drug—one of the statins—was removed from the market about a decade ago because it causes a side effect that can lead to death. All of the statins cause this side effect, but the statin-using public (a whole lot of people) was urged not to panic. Taking drugs to reduce your chance of…

Feeling Your Pain

More than 50 million Americans have chronic pain. Headache and lower back pain are the most common forms of pain. Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans 45 and younger. Costs associated with pain are estimated at $100 billion each year, including medical expenses and 50 million lost days of work. Because…