Treating IBS: Can Hypnotherapy Bring Relief?

It’s not like hypnosis you’ve seen in cartoons and movies.

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If you’re like most people, your only experience with hypnosis was either watching a villainous hypnotist with a swirly pocket watch on cartoons, or perhaps attending an event with an entertaining hypnotist who got audience members to engage in silly scenarios on stage while in a trance.

If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to be a skeptic when you hear that “hypnotherapy” can be used as a medical treatment for conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). You might think that hypnosis is all just for entertainment, or that the hypnotherapist will try to control or manipulate you.

Gut-directed hypnotherapy for IBS is not the same as hypnosis you’ve seen on stages or in cartoons. You are not put in a trance, or controlled to do things against your will, or asked to act out strange scenarios for an audience’s laughter.

Instead, hypnotherapy for IBS is more like a guided meditation in which a clinical hypnotherapist leads you through progressive relaxation with “suggestions” for improving your gut function. “There’s different exercises that a therapist will put you through for focusing,” says Benjamin Cohen, MD, gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. 

Then, the hypnotherapist will talk to you in a calming voice about images, thoughts, and feelings that you might find soothing depending on your symptoms, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD). For example, your hypnotherapist may ask you to imagine pain-free bowels, or to imagine your intestines functioning properly and smoothly, without discomfort.

Usually, the sessions are audio recorded so you can listen to the session repeatedly at home to continue the practice.

Why does this work? “We think there’s some association between the brain and the gut, possibly some hypersensitivity of the gut, that leads to the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome,” says Dr. Cohen. Like other types of psychotherapy for IBS, hypnotherapy helps address the miscommunication between the brain and gut that can fuel symptoms.

Hypnotherapy does not “cure” IBS; it is just one complementary approach to treating IBS, and it doesn’t replace lifestyle and dietary changes. Additionally, it doesn’t work for everyone: About a quarter of patients who try it do not respond, according to IFFGD. However, that’s a pretty good success rate, considering how difficult IBS is to treat.

“I’ve recommended a number of my patients go for gut hypnotherapy, and it’s been very successful for them,” says Dr. Cohen.