5 Things You Need to Know About GI Psychologists

Thinking of seeing a GI psychologist, but fuzzy on what they do? We break it all down here.

by Jenn Sinrich Health Writer

Have you ever started feeling queasy or that all too familiar pit in your stomach just before giving a work presentation or upon receiving medical results from your doctor? These scenarios are not merely happenstance; according to researchers, it is your brain and your gut communicating.

“We are not saying that gastrointestinal conditions are ‘all in your head,’ but we are saying that there is a clear pathway of communication between our brain and our GI tracts,” says Janelle Thompson, Psy.D., a clinical health psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson who specializes in gastrointestinal diseases. In fact, there are between 200 and 600 million neurons located in your gut that are directly connected to your brain, according to research published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

This helps explain why we may feel gastrointestinal symptoms in response to certain emotions such as anxiety, stress or depression. “It is also why many antidepressant medications, namely selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), not only help manage anxiety and depressive symptoms, but can also help alleviate GI distress,” notes Dr. Thompson.

All this substantial research has placed an emphasis on treating gastrointestinal conditions through a psychological lens, giving way to a new and emerging field known as GI psychology. Whether you’re in search of a GI psychologist or soon to be under the care of one, here’s what you should know about their unique medical position and how they can help you.

1. GI and Clinical Psychologists Use Some of the Same Techniques

There are several approaches to treatment for GI disorders that GI psychologists have been using for the last decade or so, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy, or mindfulness and meditation methods, notes Douglas Drossman, M.D., gastroenterology and psychiatric researcher and author of Gut Feelings.

For instance, research published in the journal Psychology Research and Behavior Management has shown cognitive-behavioral therapy to be beneficial for patients suffering from abdominal pain, while other research, including a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, has found hypnosis to be an effective treatment for a myriad of gastrointestinal disorders.

2. They’re Team Players

Often, a GI psychologist does not work alone, but rather with a multidisciplinary treatment team of gastroenterologists, bariatric surgeons, psychiatrists, dieticians, advanced practice providers (nurse practitioners or physician assistants), speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists and other specialists, explains Dina Goldstein Silverman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, NJ. “This level of oversight and multidisciplinary work helps improve the quality of life of a patient, helps the patient make significant lifestyle changes and develop new routines and supports the patient through associated changes in their life.”

For example, someone with Crohn’s “may have multiple dietician appointments to help transition his or her diet and would likely meet with the psychologist to address such issues as limited social support, emotional eating, barriers to compliance, and past trauma history that may impact the patient’s relationship with food,” says Goldstein Silverman.

3. They Take a Holistic Approach to Your Health

Although GI psychologists are specially trained to address your GI functioning, Dr. Thompson says that they are also medically trained to treat your overall well-being. “Do not be afraid to tell them if some other component of your life, physical health, or mental health is not where you want it to be,” she says. “GI psychologists are not there to judge you—no psychologist is, in fact—so be honest with them about what you have been doing and what you have not been doing in terms of your diet, medication adherence, alcohol consumption, drug use, sleep, etc.” With a more complete picture of your overall health and wellbeing, they can better treat whatever symptoms are ailing you.

4. They’ll Treat Anyone With Gastro-Mental Health Concerns

It’s a misnomer that only someone with severe gastrointestinal issues would benefit from a consultation with a GI psychologist. Most people have experience with mental health issues, be it anxiety, depression or stress, and many people also know that these emotions can trigger physical feelings associated with their gut (see: butterflies, gas, and diarrhea, to name a few). For that reason, any patient looking to promote their digestive and mental wellbeing, either preventatively or reactively, would benefit from seeing a GI psychologist, according to Dr. Thompson.

“The individuals who are going to see the most acute benefit from visiting a GI psychologist are those who have been experiencing new GI distress that they’re wanting to better understand and manage or patients who experience chronic GI distress from conditions such as IBS, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or chronic anxiety or depression,” she says. Many GI psychologists will also see family members of IBD patients to help provide some education and perspective related to the gut-mind connection.

5. They Have High Expectations

Although GI psychologists are experts in their field, they are not magicians. As you begin to work with a GI psychologist, or any psychologist for that matter, Dr. Thompson recommends asking yourself whether you are truly ready to put in some real effort into changing your behaviors and thoughts. Unlike your medical doctor who will mainly focus on your physical symptoms, a GI psychologist will dig deep into your psychology to try to understand the root of your problems. When it comes to such techniques, especially CBT, you have to be ready to put in the time and energy required to yield results. “Know that you will be asked to pay close attention, and even change, some of your thoughts and behaviors, and this will take place outside of the 30 to 45-minute appointment you have with your GI psychologist,” notes Dr. Thompson.

All in all, a GI psychologist can be a wonderful addition to your health care provider team if you’re suffering from any mental health ailments that may be contributing to your physical symptoms. They will work closely with you to help identify and modify behaviors that can assist in your physical and mental recovery.

  • Gut-Brain Connection: Nature Reviews Neuroscience. (2011). “Gut Feelings: The Emerging Biology of Gut-Brain Communication.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3845678/

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Psychology Research and Behavior Management. (2017). “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Current Insights.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5530860/

  • Hypnosis Treatment: American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. (2015). “Hypnosis Treatment of Gastrointestinal Disorders: A Comprehensive Review of the Empirical Evidence.” pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26264539/

Jenn Sinrich
Meet Our Writer
Jenn Sinrich

Jenn Sinrich is a Boston-based freelance writer, editor, and content strategist with a passion for all things health and beauty. She's also a proud new Mama to a one-month old daughter named Mila. In addition to Health Central, she contributes to publications including SELF, Reader’s Digest, Women’s Health, Glam, Livestrong.com, Parents and more.