Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Gastrointestinal Symptoms

Living with chronic and unpredictable gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms can be stressful and can affect work, relationships, and our overall quality of life. Stress can negatively impact our physical health as well, and our GI tract is one of the first systems in our bodies to experience these consequences. Stress can directly impact the GI tract by interfering with the signaling between the brain and the gut and make GI symptoms worse.

Psychological interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) target brain-gut dysfunction directly to improve GI health and also address stress management and lifestyle factors to improve patients’ health and well-being. Psychological or behavioral interventions are first-line treatments for some GI conditions and can be more effective than medications. For other conditions, these treatments are helpful in addition to medications.

According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD), CBT is a form of psychotherapy that has consistently been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of functional digestive disorders, like IBS.

CBT can be a helpful tool in teaching individuals how their thoughts and behaviors can impact their symptom experience. CBT emphasizes patients’ understanding of their condition, the role of stress, and the impact of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors on their symptoms. Patients learn skills to help change their physiological, cognitive, and behavioral responses to both GI symptoms and stress. Unlike CBT for depression or anxiety, CBT for functional GI disorders targets the GI symptoms, rather than treating the psychological distress associated with these symptoms.

CBT is a time-limited treatment, and most patients see significant symptom improvement by the end of the course of treatment, which is typically four to seven sessions, with one session every other week. Treatment is tailored to the specific symptoms and responses of the patient presenting for treatment. Some patients are not good candidates for CBT. At the first visit, your therapist will ask you questions to help come up with the best treatment plan for you.

The Behavioral Medicine for Digestive Health program is fully integrated into the Northwestern Medicine Department of Medicine and Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. The service is staffed* by psychologists and health psychology trainees with specialized training in digestive diseases, who will work directly with your gastroenterologist to coordinate your care.

All of our therapists are trained in hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy. These psychological interventions have proven efficacy in a number of well-controlled clinical trials and are widely accepted as the most effective psychological interventions for GI conditions.

Locations & Contact Information

    In the spirit of keeping you well-informed, some of the physician(s) and/or individual(s) identified are neither agents nor employees of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare or any of its affiliate organizations. They have selected our facilities as places where they want to treat and care for their private patients.