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How A Health Psychologist Can Help With Your Digestive Issues

November 01, 2022

There’s a lot of research that shows a clear relationship between stress and gastrointestinal inflammation.

“Stress activates your nervous system, which can trigger inflammation throughout your body, including the gut,” said Emily Wyckoff PhD, a clinical psychology fellow with Hartford Hospital’s Digestive Health Center.

There’s also a lot of research – about 30 years worth – that shows the inclusion of a health psychologist in medical settings improves patient outcomes. Called interdisciplinary care, Hartford HealthCare provides about 20 practitioners in many speciality areas, including the Cancer Institute, Bone and Joint Institute, transplant and bariatrics, among others.

Wyckoff is the first one to join Digestive Health, and she started in late summer. She has her PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Connecticut and did a Health Psychology Clinical Internship at VA Connecticut – West Haven.

> Connect with the Hartford Hospital Digestive Health Center

Specifically, she works on:

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With this type of counseling, “we have very concrete goals,” and so the typical treatment protocol involves between four and 12 sessions.

“I want to help you better manage your disease,” she said. “We want to improve your quality of life, get you back to doing what you enjoy, and manage your stress so your symptoms decrease.”

She works in conjunction with the gastrointestinal healthcare providers, including joint visits when necessary. Treatment plans focus on:

  • Targeting gut-brain dysregulation and stress management using cognitive behavioral strategies.
  • Improving adherence to diet and medication using motivational interviewing and brief solution-focused therapy.
  • Improving psychological well-being and existential/spiritual distress in individuals with serious medical illness (e.g., cancer, ostomy) using meaning-centered and acceptance and commitment therapy.

Relaxation strategies are often a key component of treatment, she said.

“When you’re anxious or stressed, your body prepares you to fight, flight or freeze,” she said. “That’s helpful when you are confronted by a bear, but not helpful when you are going through something with your digestion. Often a person is anxious about their symptoms, they think, ‘I’ll eat, and then I’ll feel bad’ and so they go into stress mode. It exacerbates their symptoms.”

Therapy includes education on the so-called brain-gut axis, review and practice of relaxation exercises, and cognitive restructuring, also known as changing unhelpful thought patterns.

“When you have anxiety you are always either in the past or the future,” Wyckoff explained. “I spend a lot of time on mindfulness, making sure you are in the present moment.”

She also works on eliminating any “unhelpful ways” people deal with their disease or issue, such as restricting foods, not eating at all, or deciding to never leave the house.

“All those do is lower your quality of life, which depresses your mood, which exacerbates your symptoms,” she said.

Patients who might benefit from this type of treatment include:

  • Those with moderate to severe GI symptoms that have not responded to conventional medical care
  • Stress and/or psychosocial factors trigger or exacerbate GI symptoms, or GI problems are perceived to be a stressor
  • Patients with food-related anxiety or overly restrictive diets
  • GI concerns interfere with quality of life or functioning
  • Those who are motivated and willing to commit to multiple treatment sessions and to complete “homework” outside of sessions

Even this early in her career, Wyckoff knows she is in the right field.

“I love my job,” she said. “People come to me, and they are really sick, and we can see real change in a relatively short amount of time. It is very rewarding.”

Connect with a digestive health specialist

Hartford HealthCare’s Digestive Health Institute is a comprehensive resource for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a full range of gastrointestinal disorders.

Visit website Call Call 833-2DIGEST