IBD Psychologists — It's A thing

Patient Expert
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October is Mental Health Awareness Month. This reminds me that, as a lot of us with gastrointestinal troubles know, mental health issues go hand in hand with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Many of us struggle with things like depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder because of our IBD. IBD causes us to be worried about finding the nearest bathroom or about the potential for an accident in a public place. It strains our relationships with our healthier counterparts and strains us at work. IBD causes a lot of loss both emotionally and, sometimes, physically.

IBD is a lot to handle. Sometimes, it can feel like too much for us to handle on our own. I still struggle with it day in and day out. I’m always worried that the stress I feel at work will transfer to my gut, and then I’ll wind up feeling like crap, and then I worry about spiraling into a flare because of my stress at work. So, I’m literally stressed about my stress and become more stressed worrying that something I can’t control is going to cost me the things I work hard for. Whew! Bad cycle.

One thing my first GI doc pushed me to do was to see a behavioral therapist. It was never presented to me as something that would benefit me but, rather, something that I had to do in order for more research to be collected. I shrugged it off. I didn’t need someone coaching my behavior, and I definitely didn’t want more doctors appointments.

It wasn’t until I attended the 2017 Girls With Guts 5 Year Celebration event in Chicago that I realized there may be more to tackling the mental illness that coincides with IBD.

Megan Riehl, Psy.D., was one of the presenters at the celebration event, and she specializes as a clinical health psychologist for people with IBD. I had no idea that was a thing. She works for the University of Michigan and specializes in treating people with IBD from a psychological perspective, meaning she uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address mental health issues and gut health.

Psychology Today defines CBT as “a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.”

CBT functions differently from traditional Freudian psychoanalysis “which probes childhood wounds to get at the root causes of conflict,” according to Psychology Today. Instead, CBT works by “encouraging patients to challenge distorted cognitions and change destructive patterns of behavior.”

Stephanie Horgan a clinical social worker/therapist who specializes in CBT and patients with GI disorders, also presented at the Girls With Guts event. This blew my mind. Here were two amazing ladies who have taken their therapy work a step further to specialize in treating those of us with bowel disease. Both these women taught us about the strong mind-gut connection, and shared how they’re currently participating in research projects to encourage partnerships between GI facilities and therapists and psychologists that specialize in IBD.

Pretty intense stuff. But who knew that this subspecialty in mental health existed? Certainly not me. And I’m sure if I didn’t know, there are others out there who also don’t know. I chatted with some of the women at the Girls With Guts celebration who had done CBT with their therapists. For them, it sounded like something great that helped them manage their stress and their gut health.

I felt relieved listening to these women. I felt, for the first time in a long time, that there was actually a resource I could tap to help end my cycle of stressing about stress and calm my sometimes crippling anxiety. It was also empowering to know that this network is growing.

So, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to share the knowledge about CBT and psychologists who specialize in IBD. These CBT-IBD specialty networks are small right now, but they’re growing. There have been presentations and talks about therapy for gastrointestinal patients at Digestive Disease Week and other gastroenterology-focused conferences.

Reach out to your gastroenterologist if this sounds like something that would benefit you. When we, the patients, start asking for these things, our doctors usually listen. I know I’ll be asking about it at my next checkup. There are people we should see about the very real emotional stress caused by IBD. There are people who can help us address these mental side effects and help us vanquish them so our guts become a little healthier, along with our minds.

See more helpful articles:

Mental Health Month: Dealing With Anxiety & IBD or IBS

Taking Time for Yourself with IBD

The IBD Merry-go-round