IBS Self-Help

Addressing your IBS

Because IBS is not caused by a physical or chemical reaction to the foods you eat but caused by your brain’s interpretation of the effects of those foods, we would like to outline some self-help options that could help you begin to correct this miscommunication.

There are several approaches you can try to address your IBS at home. One of the thing you can do is to gain control over the stress in your life. Read on to find techniques identified as some of the more helpful strategies to patients suffering from IBS.

Identifying & Tracking the issues

Your overall stress and anxiety levels contribute to your susceptibility and the impact of your IBS symptoms. It is helpful to identify stressors and the anxiety-causing elements in your life to begin addressing them.  The best way to do this is to put a "counter-stress" routine into place. When you recognize these stressors and start feeling symptoms, pull out a diary or notebook and think back over the last 30-60 minutes.  Write down everything you can remember leading up to the event - anything you worried about eating, anything you worried about happening, the timeline of events that led to your IBS symptoms, etc. Over time you will begin to recognize patterns of interactions, behaviors or foods that may be stress triggers for you.

A few things to try and identify - and then avoid, are:

  • Do you worry about IBS symptoms before they occur? Some people will feel their symptoms more acutely because they stress over the possibility of those same symptoms even when not experiencing them.

  • Do you amplify those symptoms once you have them? ("I can’t handle this…")

  • Do you over-analyze what you eat and actively avoid certain foods?  This is a complex issue - usually the stress over these foods causes the symptoms rather than the foods themselves; though there are a few cases in which specific foods can exacerbate IBS symptoms. There are some foods that can be avoided generally as they can affect digestive systems in anyone, even people who do not suffer from IBS.

One of the most insidious patterns is a self-perpetuated IBS cycle.  When you think and worry about the consequences of eating food, you are priming your brain to interpret your stomach’s signals as a problem, which causes those symptoms to occur, leading to future stress and worry about eating.  Because this is a circular cycle, it can be very difficult to break.  Clinical studies have shown that the best way to correct this is through brain-gut therapy, combined with stress and anxiety management techniques. For more information on brain-gut therapy resources click here.

It is possible to correct the self-perpetuating cycle without brain-gut therapy, but it can be a difficult pattern to break.  Here are some steps to go about it:

The gut responds well to a consistent, predictable lifestyle.  Creating a regular routine, getting regular sleep, going to bed at the same time, and eating small, consistent meals can help.

If you associate your IBS symptoms with stress, stress reduction techniques could help. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and belly breathing are a few techniques. Find something to keep your stress levels at bay. Try to eliminate common triggers of GI symptoms such as irregular eating habits. For some people, this can be simple. But other people need help.

Simple self-monitoring: Ask yourself "what else is going on when I have symptoms?" Keep a daily symptom diary to track what's going on and help you find correlations. For example, you might have abdominal pain every time your boss comes into the office. Once you identify correlations, try to combat the "fight or flight" response.

Cognitive strategies: change how you think or how you respond. Ask yourself 3 or 4 questions and see if it changes the way you feel. What would you tell a friend? Are you making a mountain out of a mole hill?

The idea is to convince yourself that the food you are eating is not the underlying cause of your symptoms - with a few dietary exceptions.

There are three main things that therapists look for:

  1. Excessive fixation on trying to find a cause for IBS symptoms.
  2. Making things worse by saying that you can’t handle it.
  3. Worrying about symptoms before they happen.

These are unhealthy thinking patterns that brain-gut therapy has been shown to help with.