Psychotherapy is as effective as medication in lessening the severity of symptoms from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, past research has shown.

Now, psychologists at Vanderbilt University have looked at different types of psychotherapy to determine which is best at improving the ability of IBS patients to participate in daily activities. They found that one form, cognitive behavior therapy, was the most effective.

Kelsey Laird, a doctoral student in Vanderbilt’s clinical psychology program, said:

“Evaluating daily function is important because it distinguishes between someone who experiences physical symptoms but can fully engage in work, school, and social activities and someone who cannot.”

Daily Functional Gains

Laird and colleagues analyzed 31 randomized controlled trial studies, providing data for over 1,700 individuals who were randomly assigned to receive either psychotherapy or a control condition such as support groups, education, or wait-lists.

Overall, those who received psychotherapy showed greater gains in daily functioning compared to those assigned to a control condition. However, individuals assigned to receive cognitive behavior therapy or CBT experienced larger improvements than those who received other types of therapy.

CBT is an umbrella term for a number of different therapies, each of which is based on the idea that thoughts, feelings, physiology, and behavior are interrelated. Treatments are designed to help people develop alternative ways of thinking and behaving with the goal of reducing psychological distress and physiological arousal.

The researchers speculate that the greater improvement observed in patients who received CBT may be due to the fact that treatments often incorporate exposure therapy, a technique in which individuals gradually expose themselves to uncomfortable situations.

For someone with IBS, this could include long road trips, eating out at restaurants, and going places where bathrooms are not readily accessible.

Kelsey T. Laird, Emily E. Tanner-Smith, Alexandra C. Russell, Steven D. Hollon, Lynn S. Walker Comparative efficacy of psychological therapies for improving mental health and daily functioning in irritable bowel syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis Clinical Psychology Review Volume 51, February 2017, Pages 142–152

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