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Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) With Hypnosis

Metaphors can help calm or resolve gastrointestinal symptoms.

Key points

  • IBS often improves greatly when patients learn how to better manage their stress reactions.
  • Hypnosis therapy for IBS begins by learning how to use imagery to become calmer.
  • Within 3 weeks of self-hypnosis, many patients report great improvement with their symptoms.
  • The subconscious can uncover psychological issues that are bothering patients and underlie their ongoing physical symptoms.
Kat Smith/Pexels
Source: Kat Smith/Pexels

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can present with stomachaches, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, irregular bowel movements, or a combination of any of these symptoms. The word “syndrome” in its name means that physicians are unsure of its cause. That being said, IBS usually is associated with psychosocial stress, and often improves greatly when patients learn how to better manage their stress reactions. For this reason, patients with IBS can benefit greatly from the use of hypnosis.

Hypnotic Imagery to Help With IBS

As for many patients, hypnosis therapy for IBS begins by learning how to become calmer using imagery that triggers a relaxation response, such as imagining being in a favorite, comfortable place.

Additional imagery that is helpful for IBS can involve imagining a liquid soothing medicine coating the inside of the intestines or imagining a large number of home repairers that are sent into the gut to rebuild its structure in a healthier way.

Egot Kamel/Pexels
Source: Egot Kamel/Pexels

One of my favorite metaphors that helps improve abdominal pain by addressing any underlying anxiety involves imagining building a sandcastle on a beach near the ocean. As the sandcastle is built, the patient is directed to use his or her worries as part of its scaffolding. Once the castle is built, the patient is directed to step away, and allow the ocean to wash away the sandcastle along with the worries it contained.

A healing metaphor involves imagining the colors of the rainbow. Each can be ascribed a different attribute, such as physical strength for red, mental strength for orange, healing for yellow, emotional strength for green, peace for blue, spiritual strength for indigo, and perhaps even a connection with the universe or God for violet. The patient then decides which color would best help him or her, and imagines the color entering through the head and filling the body with the desired attribute.

I encourage my patients with IBS to use hypnotic imagery on a daily basis for at least 3 weeks. During that time many achieve a lot of improvement (Anbar, 2001).

The Role of the Subconscious in Treatment of IBS

The subconscious can often disclose psychological issues that are bothering the patients of which they might be unaware and yet underlie their ongoing physical symptoms. The subconscious also can guide discussions with patients regarding these issues.

For example, in some patients, symptoms have arisen because of issues with academic or athletic stress, school bullies, or family dysfunction. In each case, therapy involves helping the patients learn to cope better with their stressor.

While under hypnosis, one patient wrote a poem, drawn from his subconscious, about how he felt about having dealt with IBS for 13 years, as a way of expressing and working through his feelings:

This feeling I get sometimes

Like an internal blast

Ready to explode

How long will it last

Waiting, feeling, not knowing what to expect

When will the suffering end

No medicine to heal me

How far will I bend?

Intense at times

I struggle to see

What’s always lurking

Inside of me.

When he alerted from hypnosis, the patient said he did not recognize the poem. Back under hypnosis, I asked his subconscious if it had anything to say about hypnosis, and that answer also came in the form of a poem:

Deafening silence to my ears

A cold breeze on my skin

Give me goosebumps as I stare into space

The feel of the cloud is warm and soft

like a comforter by a fire . . .

All this I feel in a moment’s time

Every second may differ in various ways

but I try to remember the good feelings

of being safe and calm and relaxed...

Copyright Ran D. Anbar

References

Anbar, Ran D. 2001. "Self-hypnosis for treatment of functional abdominal pain in childhood." Clinical Pediatrics. 40:447-451.

More information about hypnosis and its use for irritable bowel syndrome and stress management is available in the 2021 book "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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