Behavioral Therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on May 28, 2020

Stress and anxiety don’t cause irritable bowel syndrome, but they can make it worse. When you find a way to keep these emotions under control, you might be able to ease your symptoms or prevent a flare-up.

That’s why some people with IBS turn to behavioral therapy, a treatment that teaches you how to better handle pain and how to relieve stressful situations.

Types of this therapy that have worked for people with IBS include:

  • Relaxation practice. The goal is to get your mind and body in a calm, peaceful state. Techniques include meditation, progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and loosening individual muscles), guided imagery, and deep breathing.
  • Biofeedback. To start, you use an electrical device to help you recognize your body's response to stress. It helps you learn to slow down your heart rate to a more relaxed state. After a few sessions, you should be able to calm yourself down on your own.
  • Hypnotherapy. You enter an altered state of mind, either with a trained professional's help or, after some training, on your own. Under hypnosis, visual suggestions can help you imagine pain or tension slipping away.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. This form of talk therapy teaches you to analyze negative, distorted thoughts, and replace them with more positive and realistic ones.
  • Traditional talk therapy. A trained mental health professional helps you work out conflicts and understand your feelings.

Behavioral therapy isn’t a cure for IBS, and some studies have found that it doesn’t work very well for some symptoms. But doctors say many people with the condition can get relief from belly pain, diarrhea, constipation, and other problems when they learn and use it. Plus, when IBS symptoms get better, people tend to have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.

For most people, this approach can’t replace standard medical care for irritable bowel syndrome. You may still need to take medicine for your symptoms, change your diet, or think about alternative treatments like acupuncture. Before you start any form of therapy, talk with your doctor about how it fits into your overall treatment plan.

WebMD Medical Reference



Philip Schoenfeld, MD, MSEd, MSc, co-author of American College of Gastroenterology's "Evidence-Based Position Statement on the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in North America." 

Jeanine Blackman, MD, PhD, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. 

Jonathan Gilbert, diplomate in herbology and acupuncture from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. 

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Acupuncture." 

Mayo Clinic: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome." 

WebMD Feature: "Natural Alternatives for IBS." 

University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter. 

Medscape: "Probiotics Significantly Reduce Symptoms of IBS, Ulcerative Colitis" and "Highlights from Digestive Disease Week: An Expert Interview with Lawrence R. Schiller, MD."

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