Healthy Body

I Went to a GI Psychologist, and Now I Have Hope That I Can Get Better From SIBO

Photo: Getty Images / RUNSTUDIO
I have been struggling with digestive problems for the better part of my adult life, but somehow I always felt I could keep it at bay. The past couple of years, with the pandemic, have put a lot more stress on me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

One month before the pandemic began, I'd decided to move abroad. As I went through a lockdown alone in Barcelona, Spain, my fear and anxiety shot up like a cannonball. Gradually, my digestive issues did too.

About a year ago, I began to notice that I was getting bloated—but, like, really, really bloated—three or four times a week. At first, I thought it was weight gain, but after diet and exercise weren’t doing the trick, I decided to go to a doctor. He did an ultrasound, blood work, and a food allergy test. Nothing seemed to be to blame.

I began seeing a nutritionist, who mentioned it looked a lot like SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) to her. So I took the test, which came back positive for SIBO and leaky gut. A part of me felt relieved. I thought, “Okay, finally we know what this is. Now give me the medicine to cure it and I’ll be on my way.”

The doctor prescribed me antibiotics, but my nutritionist informed me that curing SIBO wasn’t as easy as just taking a few pills. Along with taking this medication, I had to follow a strict low-FODMAP diet and take certain supplements after finishing the antibiotics.

Although I was grateful to have a treatment plan, it was clear to me that this was not a quick fix. It could take weeks or even months before I began to see real improvement. My already fragile mental health began to crumble as I felt so insecure about my body image. I began to lose hope that I would ever get better.

This had become not only a digestive health issue but also a mental health issue as my depression began to weigh down on me. I felt that therapy was a definite must at this point, but I wondered if there was some type of therapist who specialized in what I was going through. Turns out there is: a GI psychologist. GI psychologists specialize in patients who suffer from digestive issues. They use different techniques to help improve the digestive system overall by helping to combat stress that may be triggering or worsening symptoms. I found mine by typing in my ZIP code at Rome GI Psych, which generated a list of GI Psychologists and therapists who specialize in digestive issues. Through the site, I contacted a GI psychologist who was able to do online sessions with me (since I’m still living abroad).

I didn’t understand why we needed to go back to my childhood to fix my gut problems.

During the initial intake session, my GI psychologist asked a lot of questions about my past, and how I got to where I was now. Being so eager to fix the problem instantaneously, I didn’t understand why we needed to go back to my childhood to fix my gut problems. Although I was twiddling my thumbs and thinking, ‘When do we get to the good stuff—you know, the magic recipe to make me feel better?!’ I knew I had to keep an open mind. To my pleasant surprise, in our first conversation, we were able to pinpoint when the symptoms started and potentially what had triggered them.

Nearly a year ago, my mother and sister came to visit me in Spain. I hadn't seen them for two years due to the pandemic. It was an incredible visit but when they left, my anxiety and stress skyrocketed. I wasn’t sure when I would see them again and I feared another Covid wave would come and again keep us apart. Shortly after they left, my symptoms started.

Through this initial conversation, my GI psychologist helped me to understand the connection between gut health and stress and anxiety. After that session, I felt hopeful, like I had had a slight breakthrough. In our next session, we discussed how my mind was like a never-ending spinning wheel. In my case, when bloating happens, my negative thoughts come racing in: Oh no. I feel awful. This is terrible. Those thoughts trigger my emotions, and that's when I start to feel anxious, nervous, and depressed. It's a cycle.

I’m just in the infancy stage of my journey with GI psychology, but through starting this process, I've accepted what is going on—and I accept that this is indeed a long process. It took a couple of years to get here with my health; the issues are not going to disappear overnight. But making peace with that reality has begun to calm my nerves, like a roadblock in my anxiety-driven spinning wheel.

After speaking to my GI psychologist, I also realized that many of my fears that initially triggered my symptoms never came to fruition. All the stress I put on myself was for nothing. So now, when fearful thoughts try to take over, I tell myself, "I am okay. I will get better."

I can’t say my bloating has completely disappeared, but I can say this: For the first time in a long time, I have hope that it will.

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