Psychogastroenterology, or gastrointestinal psychology, refers to psychosocial research and clinical practice related to GI conditions. This field is situated within a biopsychosocial model of illness and grounded in an understanding of the gut-brain axis. A key feature of GI psychology intervention is behavioral symptom management. Commonly referred to as “brain-gut psychotherapies,” the primary goal of these interventions is to reduce GI symptoms and their impact on those experiencing them. Additionally, GI-focused psychotherapies can help patients with GI disorders cope with their symptoms, diagnosis, or treatment.
GI psychology providers
GI-focused psychotherapies are typically provided by clinical health psychologists (PhDs or PsyDs) with specialized training in GI disorders, although sometimes they are provided by a clinical social worker or advanced-practice nursing provider. Psychologists that identify GI as their primary specialty area often refer to themselves as “GI psychologists.” Psychologists that treat patients with a variety of medical concerns, which may include GI disorders, typically refer to themselves with the broader term, “health psychologists.”
A variety of psychological treatments have been applied to GI populations, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), gut-directed hypnotherapy (GDH), psychodynamic interpersonal therapy, relaxation training, and mindfulness-based stress reduction. Psychological therapies have been shown to be useful in a variety of GI disorders, with a number needed to treat of four in IBS.1 Common ingredients of GI-focused psychotherapy interventions include psychoeducation regarding the gut-brain relationship and relaxation strategies to provide in-the-moment tools to deescalate the body’s stress response.
CBT and GDH are the most commonly used interventions across a range of GI conditions, with the bulk of empirical evidence in IBS.2-5 CBT is a theoretical orientation in which thoughts and behaviors are understood to be modifiable factors that impact emotions and physical sensations. When utilized in a GI setting (i.e., GI-CBT), treatment aims to address GI-specific outcomes such as reducing GI symptoms, optimizing health care utilization, and improving quality of life. These interventions target cognitive and behavioral factors common among GI patient populations, such as GI-specific anxiety, symptom hypervigilance, and rigid coping strategies. See Figure 1 for a GI-CBT model.
While research studies often implement manualized protocols, in clinical practice many GI psychologists use cognitive-behavioral interventions flexibly to tailor them to each patient’s presentation, while also integrating theory and practice from other types of therapies such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; pronounced as one word). ACT, a “new wave” therapy derived from traditional CBT, emphasizes acceptance of distress (including GI symptoms), with a focus on engaging in values-based activities rather than symptom reduction.
Clinical hypnotherapy is utilized in a variety of medical specialties and has been studied in GI disorders for over 30 years. There are two evidence-based gut-directed hypnotherapy protocols, the Manchester6 and the North Carolina,7 that are widely used by GI psychologists. Though the exact mechanisms of hypnotherapy are unknown, it is thought to improve GI symptoms by modulating autonomic arousal and nerve sensitivity in the GI tract.