New book by Penn psychologist supports IBS sufferers without strict diets

Melissa Hunt has no problem talking about bathrooms or what happens during the digestion process.

In fact, as associate director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences, she has spent the better part of a decade thinking about, discussing, understanding, and writing on these issues, specifically irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Her new book, “Reclaim Your Life from IBS: A Scientifically Proven Plan for Relief without Restrictive Diets,” focuses on cognitive behavioral therapies that can ease symptoms for people dealing with IBS. She is also working on a similar project for IBD.

“The medical model has almost nothing useful to offer these folks,” Hunt says. “It’s just this cycle where people get so incredibly focused on their gut and on bathroom issues that it starts to rule their whole experience, which is just really not a fun way to live.”

Many of the people who suffer from IBS—and have often exhausted the advice of their gastroenterologists—get depressed or anxious. This directly affects how the gut functions and they become hyper-aware of what’s happening in their digestive system, which Hunts says leads to more worry and, eventually, what’s called “catastrophizing.”

“They [fear] what people are going to think about them if they are in a public restroom and have a noisy, smelly bowel movement, if they have to excuse themselves from a meeting or a movie … to go to the bathroom,” Hunt says. “People worry about being judged.” They cope with life avoidance, which is often accompanied by shame and secrecy.

Hunt has sufficiently studied IBS sufferers to determine what treatment options are lacking. She also has extensive experience with cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which employs tactics like exposure and cognitive restructuring—reframing distorted thinking into a benign alternative. She created a self-reporting IBS treatment using CBT, plus therapist feedback. Her team then recruited study participants.

“People got amazingly better,” she says.

From there, the treatment plan became a self-help book filled with clinical examples and actions. Hunt tested the manuscript through a randomized control trial with 60 people 18 years of age or older who believed they had IBS. Control participants went on a “wait list” and were told they would receive the book after six weeks. She saw similar results to the first round of testing.

“I was really concerned that taking the therapist piece out, the effects were going to go way down,” she says. “They were still quite robust. People really improved on measures like health-related quality of life.”

With the IBS book complete, Hunt has turned her attention to IBD, developing a manuscript that can help these patients, in conjunction with proper medical care, and conducting a clinical trial to test its effectiveness. 

These two gastrointestinal-related projects, plus others Hunt continues to develop, all have one common goal: to help such patients stop focusing on their guts and start living normal, healthy lives.