I hadn’t planned to review this book at first, but then I thought it might be helpful to others.
IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome. I’ll let you look up the symptoms elsewhere if you don’t know them. But the bathroom-related issues of IBS can cause anxiety (about being able to find a bathroom when you need one, having issues at an inopportune time, etc.) That anxiety can in turn exacerbate IBS symptoms. It’s not that IBS is a disease of the mind, but our thoughts and anxieties can make it worse, creating more anxiety which creates worse symptoms, creating a vicious cycle.
Reclaim Your Life from IBS: A Scientifically Proven Plan for Relief without Restrictive Diets by Melissa G. Hunt deals primarily with the cognitive aspect of IBS, the way we think about it.
Dr. Hunt begins with other diseases of what she calls the “gut” which have to be ruled out before an IBS diagnosis can be made. Someone who thinks they might have IBS might actually have something else which has a specific treatment, so it’s important to be checked out. Then she describes the processes involved in digestive issues, from the nervous system to gut bacteria.
Dr. Hunt shares some relaxation techniques to help us dial back from panic mode. Then she explains the “cognitive model of stress management.” Basically, what and how we believe and think influences us one way or another. She gives the example of seeing a friend across the street and waving at her, but receiving no response. Our minds can take off imagining scenarios – that our friend is mad at us for something, that she’s snubbing us., etc., when probably she just didn’t see us. Applying that to IBS, when we experience gut twinges or gurgles when we’re out or preparing to go out, we can panic, thinking we need to get to a bathroom fast. But every twinge and gurgle doesn’t mean an attack is coming on. Or we can panic about the possibility of needing to step out to go to the bathroom during a work meeting, thinking everyone will think less of us and we might even be jeopardizing future promotions, when in reality no one will think anything of it (plus everyone probably has to do that at some time).
Dr Hunt also shares ways to eliminate avoidance: people with IBS can become experts in avoiding situations where they think they might have problems. Some of what Dr. Hunt shares here is the same process as overcoming phobias: exposing ourselves to whatever we’re fearful of a little bit at a time as we become more comfortable. One example she gives is that of someone who avoids commuter trains because they don’t have bathrooms. First she suggests just visiting the train station for a while until that nervousness we get just from being there subsides (which might take multiple attempts). Then, we might get on the train just until the next stop. Once we can do that without nervousness, then we might go two stops, etc.
Finally she discusses some of the dietary and medicinal approaches to IBS. She stresses that there is no one IBS diet that works for everyone or particular foods that everyone must avoid. She discusses some of the most common foods that might give IBS patients trouble.
I hope I never have to see a therapist, but I hope that if I do, I can find one as practical and down to earth as Dr. Hunt rather the ethereal and New Age-y kinds I have read elsewhere. Much of what she has to say, especially about our thoughts, can be applied to many situations beyond IBS:
Cognitive interventions are not about “pretending” that things are going well if they’re not. In fact, this wouldn’t help even if you tried it, because you wouldn’t believe it. Rather, cognitive interventions are about helping you see the world as accurately and objectively as possible. The problem is that many, many people do have negative biases or filters that they use to interpret situations in their lives. If you do this routinely and without realizing it, you will be a lot more stressed than you need to be. If you have been entertaining lots of negatively biased automatic thoughts, then seeing the world more accurately should bring about a great deal of relief. In other words: Don’t believe everything you think (p. 66).
Dr. Hunt’s style is easy to read and understand. I am happy to recommend this book.