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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: Mind-Body Connection

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 26th 2007

The British Medical Journal just released the results of another study that adds further evidence to the connection between psychological health issues and physical health. In this case the research examined the cognitive-behavioral characteristics of patients and predicted whether or not they would develop Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

In this new study people who had been diagnosed with gastroenteritis caused by a bacterial infection were studied for signs of stress, anxiety, perfectionism, and being "driven" or continuing at work despite illness. In other words, the drive to succeed is so high and their inner demand for perfectionism is so high that they ignore their health, refuse to rest and press on towards ever higher levels of achievement.

What I found so interesting about the study is that the researchers selected a population of people with the same type of bacterial gastroenteritis, studied their characteristic ways of thinking and predicted who among them would go on to develop IBS. The researchers' predictions were completely correct. Those patients who had suffered the same infection but had thought about health issues, success and were not driven did not develop IBS.

What does this study mean for all of us?

1. It is time we started pay admit to ourselves that mind and body are not separate.

2. Having made that admission, it is time to find ways to reduce stress in our lives.

3. one way to reduce stress is to stop demanding unrealistic expectations of ourselves. I often point out to my perfectionist driven patients that only the "Lord" is perfect and that all we should expect of ourselves is to do the best we can.

4. Having done "the best we can" we need time for sleep, leisure, exercise, meditation, spirituality (not necessarily religion) good food and happy and healthy relationships.

5. If none of these things help then it is time to go for psycholigical help that will come in the form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and, possibly, medication to relieve anxiety and depression.

My Personal Interest in this Topic:

So often, when I write about mental health and health on our web site I refer to patients with whom I have worked as examples of what I am illustrating. I always fictionalize so that identities are completely hidden. Name, genders, locations, facts, ages and all other details are completely hidden in order to protect privacy.

In this case I am going to write a very dear life-long friend of mine who has suffered with IBS for many years. He is an extremely bright, creative but driven man who experiences life with extreme intensity. Frankly, I used to fear that he could experience a heart attack because of the way he lived his life and worried about everything. I suppose he fits the profile of Type A personality: always busy, always in a rush, temperamental always magnifying things that should have been minor. Understand that he is a "nice guy" and someone who is liked by everyone. In fact, if you want a favor, he is the "go to guy" because everyone knows the favor will get done.

However, he has paid a price for his intensity. He developed IBS about ten years ago. Being a scientist and interested only in hard facts, he minimized my warnings that he was not caring for himself and that he would become ill. A robust and healthy man who always exercised with great vigor and with the predictable compulsive regularity you would expect of him, he was convinced that his thinking and his mental state were unrelated to his body and its functioning.

I am writing this not to criticize my good friend and he knows this, but to serve as a warning to all of us that we should not ignore the connection between psychological issues such as: ways of thinking, anxiety, worrying, depression and our physical health.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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