Clinical hypnotherapist Michelle White DCht MIACT lived with the debilitating symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) for 15 years before discovering the healing properties of gut directed hypnotherapy. She shares her journey to health with this holistic approach.
How many people do you know suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome? I can take a guess not many people have told you because the symptoms are not high on the list of conversation. Daily cramping, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, flatulence, pain and fatigue are all common symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome suggests just that, an irritable bowel. So, what is irritating it? When IBS is medically diagnosed, ruling out any underlying disease or condition, there are only two options. It's either the food and chemical intake or a complex interaction called the brain-gut axis - the relationship and signaling between the brain and the gut. Anything that has an impact on the brain can also affect the gut and that includes stress, anxiety, depression and negative thinking.
Think about that time in your life you had to prepare a speech, or undertake an exam or attend an important job interview. Do you feel those nerves and butterflies in your stomach just at the memory of it? It's a common example of how strongly linked the brain and gut are, and with IBS it's often built on the same signalling but is far more complex.
Understanding Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a functional bowel disorder and is diagnosed by exclusion of organic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and cancer. Food allergies, gluten intolerance and coeliac disease can all mimic the symptoms of IBS and must first be ruled out by your medical practitioner.
IBS is the most common gastrointestinal disorder, affecting about 20% of the world's population and makes up approximately 50% of visits to gastroenterologists. IBS is viewed as a dysregulation between the gut and the central nervous system, leading to alterations in sensation, sensitivity, bowel movement and immune function. IBS patients tend to have hypersensitive responses to movement and distention of the bowel, and tolerance to other activity in the bowel, including the digestion of food, is decreased.
Brain-gut interactions are crucial in regulating digestive processes such as appetite and food intake, and in the overall physical and emotional state of the gastrointestinal tract. Similarly, about 90% of our serotonin lives in our gut. Serotonin is an extremely important neurotransmitter involved in brain function and is the 'feel good' chemical that helps regulate mood, appetite, sleep and pain sensitivity. Serotonin plays an important role in bowel movement and sensation, so getting the signals right between the brain and gut is essential for IBS patients.
Evidence shows that the negative emotions created by stressors such as stress, fear, anxiety and depression activate stress hormones from the pituitary and adrenal glands in an effort to rebalance the body to its normal state. When these hormones are produced too often, they can be harmful and result in symptoms of IBS.
As the gut is not functioning in a healthy capacity, there is a higher incidence of food intolerance in people with IBS. This is commonly due to hypersensitivity of the gut or abnormal intestinal micro flora. Probiotics can be beneficial for people with IBS, although these are best taken under the recommendation of a health care professional. An overproduction of good bacteria can also be harmful and result in inflammation of the gut lining and improper absorption of food particles. When the gastrointestinal tract is unbalanced and experiencing altered bowel movements and higher sensitivity, it can react unnecessarily to stimulus such as food, thereby creating food intolerances.
If all those physical symptoms are keeping IBS patients on their toes and in close proximity to bathrooms, how on earth are they managing everything else? IBS takes a toll on the physical, emotional, social and financial aspects of life of people coping with the condition. There can be regular time off work to deal with symptoms or medical appointments causing financial strain. Even frequent visits to public bathroom spaces in the workplace can burden the patient, which, in turn, stimulates the bowel and increases symptoms. Every thought produces a physical reaction so when an IBS patient feels stress or worries about their symptoms or how it affects their personal lives, it only exacerbates their condition.
IBS has become almost popular with more and more patients being diagnosed through general practitioners and gastroenterologists, then forgotten about once major disease is ruled out leading to the diagnosis of IBS. In a clinical setting, medications to mask the symptoms are often prescribed but offer no long term relief or healing of the symptoms. In Western medicine, clinicians separate the patient, either treating their body or their mind, often not treating the two in a holistic approach. Generally, the longer a person suffers with IBS symptoms, the worse they become, as the signals between the brain and gut repeat themselves, they only serve to grow stronger. The mind-body has no choice but to ramp up the symptoms in order to remind the client their gut is irritable.
Hypnotherapy and IBS
Clinical hypnotherapy is used in a clinical setting and removes itself from the media-style stage hypnosis. Stage hypnosis is designed for entertainment and therefore relies on extroverted subjects to volunteer themselves to entertain the crowd under the guidance of a stage hypnotist who does not often engage in therapeutic hypnosis.
All hypnotherapy is guided self hypnosis. If you are asked to look out the window, you use your own free will and choose to either look out the window or not. No one can force you to look out the window. You use your mind based on your own values and beliefs to make decisions and act on them. Clinical Psychologist Dr Michael Yapko says in his book Trancework, "The clinician is able to use his or her skills in communication to make acceptance or suggestion more likely, but there is no control over the client other than the control the client gives to the clinician. The hypnotist directs the client's experience, but only to the degree that the client permits it. It is a relationship of mutual responsiveness."
Hypnotherapy bypasses the conscious or critical mind where inhibitions, opinions and the ego dwell. The conscious mind, otherwise known as the thinking mind, habitually chatters away constantly. If these thought process are stress producing, they only serve to exacerbate IBS symptoms. Hypnotherapy allows this thinking mind to quieten down, to rest, allowing direct communication with the subconscious mind. Hypnosis uses imagery to control physiological functions. In fact, neuroimaging has shown that the brain is unable tell the difference between something that is real or imagined. When imagery is used in gut-directed hypnotherapy, the brain believes it to be real and the physical body follows suit.
A person's perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, memories and emotions are all patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release. Hypnosis acts on the brain's structures and chemistry to alter mind-body interactions by controlling reactions to stress and regulating digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions. The brain has an incredible ability to learn and remember emotional stimulus. Just like the brain, the physical body is extremely clever at remembering emotions and storing them in different parts of the body. If unresolved, these emotions can present themselves in physical forms and can be the basis of many diseases or conditions such as IBS.
Professor Peter Whorwell, head of the Department of Medicine and Gastroenterology at the University of Manchester Medical School, pioneered the use of Gut Directed Hypnotherapy (GDH), specifically for IBS patients. "IBS is ideal for treatment with hypnosis, as there is no structural damage to the body," explained Professor Whorwell. "During the hypnotherapy, sufferers learn how to influence and gain control of their gut functions, and then seem to be able to change the way the brain modulates their gut activity."
Along with gut directed hypnotherapy for IBS and relaxation strategies, hypnotherapy can use more advanced techniques to discover the root cause of the emotion. By attending to the original sensitising event, the client can make any necessary changes to their emotions and beliefs created at that time, therefore releasing any stored emotion that has presented itself in the physical body. Hypnotherapy cares for a person holistically by looking at both the physical and psychological wellbeing and the relationship they have with each other.
As hypnotherapy does not interfere with other clinical treatment, evidence and studies strongly suggest it is a highly effective treatment for IBS, whether used in conjunction with other treatment or on its own. In addition, the patient learns how to manage his or her stress levels and increase relaxation, which is a positive outcome for anyone's health.