Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Help With IBD?

Last updated: December 2022

A few years ago, after struggling with postnatal anxiety, I discovered cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT for short). If you're not familiar with CBT, it is a talk-based therapy that specifically focuses on the here and now. Rather than seeing a therapist to talk about the past (which I've previously done as my diagnosis triggered a ton of anxiety for me), it focuses on addressing your current thoughts and feelings.

As you tackle each one, you ask yourself questions such as: Is this useful? Is this realistic? What are the chances of this actually happening? This challenges the validity of your concerns. You then aim to replace them with more realistic thoughts instead, until eventually, your brain does this on auto-pilot.

Using cognitive behavioral therapy to help my IBD anxiety

Although I initially attended CBT for my postnatal anxiety, I have found the strategies useful for the inevitable worries and unpredictability I experience around living with Crohn's disease.

For example, if I am anxious about having an accident in public, I might readdress this by thinking about how likely this is (this is something I'm anxious about even when well) but also what practical steps I could take to deal with it should it happen, so it isn't as scary and bad as it seems in my head.

It may not seem so scary if I pack a change of clothes, research the nearest toilets, and drive separately so I can head home whenever I want. I'm removing a lot of the triggers.

We can also tend to catastrophise when it comes to IBD. I know I do! Perhaps I've read about someone falling ill on the medication I take or reading the side effect leaflets that come with it. This is when putting it in perspective can really help. For example, what percent of people get no side effects whatsoever? What is more likely to happen? Are my fears realistic or based on Google?

Can CBT help IBD patients?

But could CBT be a useful tool for everybody with IBD? I decided to do some research to see if this might be beneficial for all of us with Crohn's or colitis.

Unfortunately, there's no definitive and conclusive evidence to suggest it can. One study found that CBT over 24 months didn't influence the individual's disease activity or the mental health of IBD patients.1

However, a smaller study suggested it could be useful with fatigue, in particular.2

While another study found that it improved the overall health of IBD patients and decreased their feelings of psychological stress.3

There's no concrete answer. But if you regularly find your Crohn's or colitis impacts your mental health and causes anxiety, CBT may be worth trying. You might speak to your doctor or research a qualified CBT therapist in your local area.

If you have tried it, I'd love to know if it's helped you, too?

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