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  • Elaine Way

Hypnotherapy and IBS: The Rest & Digest State

We are so very grateful to have a such a thriving therapy and hypnotherapy practice in our home-town of Farnham….but unfortunately that can also means things like our studio blog and social media posts appear to be somewhat neglected!

In fact, we’ve been so busy since the pandemic began that we haven’t been able to write a blog update for many MONTHS….however, today I’ve managed to take some time out of the Studio to get the ball rolling again.

Lockdown has exacerbated so many issues around mental health and wellbeing. At the Studio we specialise in anxiety and related issues, so we’re seeing record numbers of clients with social anxiety, health anxiety, low mood, panic attacks and insomnia. However, what I wanted to discuss today may not have the most obvious link to lockdown woes, but it’s something we are definitely seeing more of on a daily basis: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

That we should be seeing so much of it actually makes sense - after all, anxiety is often closely linked to IBS and digestive issues and as a therapy practice, we’ve been developing increasing recognition for what we've been able to achieve with clients experiencing IBS. So, it would figure that if lockdown anxiety is triggering people's IBS symptoms, we would naturally be seeing more clients coming to us and reporting this issue.

Approximately 2 in 10 people in the UK suffer from IBS (source: Bupa Healthcare), which means that millions of people are living with the condition at any one time.

If you have watched my video all about IBS on our homepage, you’ll know that clinical hypnotherapy is referenced in the NHS/NICE Guidelines as recognised method used to helping people with the condition, often where other approaches have failed.

However, what the NICE guidelines don’t mention is that this is not just straightforward clinical hypnotherapy; what we use is called ‘gut-directed’ hypnotherapy and at the Solution Focused Studio we developed our own effective methods based on noticing what worked for our own clients, but also leading clinical research from Professor Whorwell, a consultant gastroenterologist at Whythenshawe Hospital in Manchester, and Monash University in Australia, who in addition to hypnotherapy, were also primarily involved in the development of the FODMAP diet.

Our findings: it’s not just the hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy is a great, evidence-based tool in the right hands, but like most accredited therapists, we find that while hypnosis can be effective, it is even better when combined with a talking therapy. Solution Focused Hypnotherapy is our tool of choice, as it combines the hypnosis element with a brief, positive talking therapy and a very thorough scientific brain explanation about anxiety and IBS, so the client can actively start to change thinking and behaviour patterns around their condition.

Our experience with IBS clients has taught us that in most cases, people with the condition may be restricting their life in some way because they are nervous about being ‘caught out’, and a lot of the anxiety is from their thought and behaviour patterns around the condition. In our experience, brief therapy and a good understanding of the brain is an essential part of reducing the anxiety and frustration and helping a client move forward to a life where they have control over the condition, rather than feeling the condition has control over them.

The significance of the ‘rest and digest’ system

IBS is a complex issue. So today I wanted to concentrate a bit more on one of the fundamental reasons we use hypnotherapy for IBS and that is the ‘rest and digest’ system – more specifically the ‘sympathetic nervous system’ and the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’.

This might sound complex and a bit of a mouthful, but once you have an understanding of what these are, it’s really quite simple! Briefly:

The sympathetic nervous system

You might not be familiar with the term ‘sympathetic nervous system’, but you probably will have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ or fear response. This fight or flight response is created by the sympatheticnervous system. It is the anxiety or fear response that your brain sets into motion to help you deal with (or escape from) a dangerous or harmful threat. The parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest & digest’ system)

The parasympathetic nervous system is, if you like, the opposite to the sympathetic nervous system: it creates a physical state of calm or ‘rest and digest’, allowing your body to ‘rest’ and look after itself by allowing things like the digestive system and the immune system to function properly. It is not as well known as the fight or flight response, which is a shame, as it is the parasympathetic, or ‘rest and digest’ state that we should be in most of the time and is vitally important to our long-term emotional and physical health.

During the anxious or ‘fight or flight’ response, our brain is flooded with adrenalin, but also another brain chemical called cortisol. Research has shown that cortisol can behave as an inflammatory in the body and, similar to adrenalin, is often linked to IBS. Therefore if you are anxious – and in today’s life this may be a response to smaller events than a deadly threat – you’ll have higher levels of these chemicals flowing around the brain and body.

When the surge of adrenalin from the initial stage of the fight or flight response has subsided, your brain will decide if there is still a threat present. If there is, something called the HPA axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland and Adrenal Glands ) releases more cortisol into your blood stream to keep it in the fight or flight state. Cortisol continues the work of the adrenalin to make sure that you are still ready to react to the threat.

When the perceived threat has passed, the brain signals for the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. It lets the body know that it doesn’t need more cortisol to be released, allowing the body to return to the ‘rest and digest’ stage. Amongst other things, it slows down your breathing rate and releases digestive enzymes (which were stopped during the fight or flight response) which are essential to a healthy gut and to digest your food properly.

The picture that always comes to mind for me is of antelopes being chased by lion – a real life or death situation – seeing them panicked and running away at great speed when they spot the predator. When the danger is gone and the adrenalin has subsided, you would see them slowing to a halt and finding a nice place to rest, restore and eat grass – the ‘rest and digest’ response. Life has returned to normal for the antelopes, there’s no threat and so they relax.

Why does this matter to IBS?

​You might be thinking how wonderful it is that your body has these systems in place to protect you, or perhaps you’re thinking ‘What’s all this got to do with my IBS?’ Well, in the modern world, we don’t tend to have so much danger around us (when was the last time you fought a sabre-tooth tiger?). However, our anxiety response, or ‘sympathetic nervous system’ is still alive and well. If there are no big threats, it can often start attaching itself to smaller threats or frustrations: You need to go on the train and there might not be a loo. Threat. You’re in town and worried you might not find a loo in time. Threat. You have workplace stress. Threat. You feel a twinge in your tummy. Threat.

You’ve avoided going out for the day because of your tummy. Threat Do you relate to any of this?

The trouble is that with without realising it, when we have a condition, or we feel out of control, our anxiety levels can gradually rise. Our sympathetic nervous system is jingling away in the background and we have elevated levels of adrenalin or cortisol in our system. This can aggravate our IBS and mean that we start avoiding situations, activities or places that we want to go. The anxious and uncomfortable feelings mean we start restricting our daily activities.

What we need to do is activate the parasympathetic nervous system - our ‘rest and digest’ system, to counteract the chemicals flooding around our body. In short – we need to be more calm and relaxed.

How Hypnotherapy Helps IBS

Hypnotherapy can help you to relax and reduce anxiety – not just mentally, but physically. When you are in a relaxed state, your ‘rest and digest’ system is activated and there are fewer stress chemicals in your system. This is good for you and good for reducing any inflammation in the body. Furthermore, during hypnotherapy, blood also returns more freely to the digestive system – in fact one of the things a hypnotherapist will often notice when a client is in a deeply relaxed state, is that their tummy will make small noises and rumblings – all a sign that the deep muscles of the stomach are relaxing and blood is flowing well to the abdomen.

It’s not just about chemicals. When we are tense with anxiety or frustration, our muscles tense too, which exacerbates any twinges or discomfort, often making us think that our symptoms are worsening. In the case of IBS-C (constipation) the need to be relaxed throughout the mind and body is obvious.

With IBS – D, when we panic because we suddenly get the feeling of needing the loo quickly, we have to remember that, in an evolutionary sense, fear and panic was often a sign to evacuate material from the body to make us lighter and quicker in our escape – so actually being calm and relaxed will slow down the instant evacuation process. This is why positive mindset work is so important – can you imagine the difference between:

‘I need to get to a loo! Quick! Panic! I’m going to have an accident if I don’t! This is my worst nightmare and people will laugh at me’


‘Okay, that feels like a sign I need the loo. But I know that I’ve got some time yet and I have some control over my body, so let me stay calm and find the loo. I haven’t had an actual accident in years!’

There is a very significant brain-gut connection and so how we feel can have a strong effect on digestive and bowel issues.

It’s not just about anxiety and stress

In addition to helping people spend more time in the calm, rest and digest state, hypnotherapy can also help with regards to making any lifestyle changes clients want to see. Research shows that diet and exercise can help IBS, but if this has previously not been a feature of someone’s life, often they can need a little support in making changes and sticking to their new diet, losing weight or increasing their amount of exercise. As hypnotherapy helps with establishing new thought and behaviour patterns, it can often be key to sticking to a new and different lifestyle.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the rest and digest system. If you have any questions or would like to learn a little more about how we work with IBS, drop us an email or give us a call and we’d be pleased to tell you more.

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