Writing Away Your Gut Pains

Does the pain and discomfort of IBS make you want to scream? Let it out!

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic gastrointestinal condition characterised by abdominal pain and discomfort, bloating, and constipation and/or diarrhea. Many IBS sufferers have a history of psychological trauma and distress, which has a huge impact on the disorder’s symptoms and experience. This makes psychological therapies – such as cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy, and writing in a journal – effective treatment courses.

Past studies show that writing about your feelings can greatly improve the experience of living with various diseases and disorders including depression, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, chronic pain, and high blood pressure. One study even showed that cancer patients reported a reduction in pain levels, as well as superior physical health after participating in expressive writing programs.

So, is writing in a journal effective for IBS patients?

In a pilot study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology,1 researchers asked 82 out of the 103 study participants suffering from IBS for a mean duration of about 7 years to write for 30 minutes daily, on four consecutive days. The individuals wrote on a computer while logged-in to the researchers’ system via an online portal. They were encouraged to express their deepest emotions and thoughts regarding their IBS experience, their feelings about its affect on them, as well as other forces active within their lives. The other 21 participants chose to be non-writers. Their role was to complete questionnaires before and after the study, to see how their disease progression compared to that of the writers.

The results showed a much greater improvement in IBS symptom severity in those who wrote compared to those who did not. Even better, is the fact that in spite of the study being so short, the results were long lasting, and symptoms continued to improve for months, long after the writing exercises. The researchers speculate that this continual improvement could occur for a number of reasons. Typically, individuals who participate in expressive writing studies think and dream about the topics they wrote about long after they write them. Writing about one’s feelings may also help the patient gain insight into their disorder that they might not have been aware of previously. Individuals who express emotions start to think about and organize them in a different way, making reaction to the disease process more adaptive. It also seems likely that just getting everything out during the writing exercise can help dissipate pent up emotions.

This study is the first of its kind and brings some interesting theories to light. However, the researchers note that the results are not conclusive, and they recommend a large-scale, controlled study for validation of the potential usefulness of expressive writing as a way to improve symptoms of IBS.

The benefits of writing

So, what can expressive writing do for you? A number of studies indicate that expressive writing can decrease our requirements for healthcare services. Those who write about their feelings often need shorter post-operative stays in the hospital, and have significant decreases in symptoms of their disease or disorder. Expressive writing can help you organize your thoughts, and gain more knowledge of how your disorder affects you specifically. It is very inexpensive, and you can do it without any doctor supervision. Just pull out a pen and a piece of paper (or your laptop), and let it all out!

Want to learn more about IBS?

We have several related articles that may be helpful:

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 175 – 2010
Image Credit: © fotolia.com/Darren Baker
Halpert A et al. Expressive Writing is a Promising Therapeutic Modality for the Management of IBS: A Pilot Study. American Journal of Gastroenterology. Advance online publication 15 June 2010. doi:10.1038/ajg.2010.246