Coping and Living Well With IBS

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If there is one thing that is certain about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) it's that it is not that easy to live with. Aside from coping with discomfort, your days may often be spent dealing with an unpredictable bowel or making accommodations so that you can eat without worsening your IBS symptoms. While these and other struggles can be emotionally draining and challenging, there are strategies that can help you adjust and live your best life despite your IBS.

Emotional

IBS can interfere with your ability to enjoy family meals and get-togethers with friends. It can affect your ability to be the parent or partner that you would like to be, or to fulfill commitments you've made.

This can lead to feelings of guilt and self-blame, as well as stress. It's important that you cut yourself some slack and to ask that others do the same. You are not making the choice to miss out—your condition is preventing you from doing so.

Make accommodations that will help relieve you of this emotional burden. For example, ask others to serve as a backup should your bathroom issues prevent you from handling the things that you normally handle.

In many ways, a calmer mind means a calmer body (and, in your case, a calmer gut in particular). With this in mind, do your best to make time for relaxation and activities that you enjoy as well.

Physical

If you are like many people who have IBS, trying to figure out what to eat can be quite confusing. A food may not cause symptoms one day, but have you running to the bathroom the next. In this regard, changes to your diet are as much a coping strategy as they are a treatment one.

Follow your doctor's instructions as to what to eat and work in concert with her as you try eliminating foods to see how they affect your IBS. Start and keep up with a food diary, so you can look for patterns among the foods that you eat and your symptoms.

If constipation is your predominant issue, try to keep your body on a regular schedule of meals to try to keep your intestines moving. You may find that eating a large breakfast, with a hot drink and some healthy fats can serve as a trigger for a bowel movement. You may also want to follow the steps of bowel retraining to encourage your body to return to a state of regularity.

If dealing with the frequent bowel movements of diarrhea is your biggest challenge, you will want to focus on activities that will keep your system calm. This means eating small meals every few hours, utilizing stress management techniques, and feeling like you are prepared for emergencies.

If your bathroom issues flip back and forth between episodes of constipation and diarrhea, you will want to use an approach that encompasses all of the tips above. In particular, you may find it helpful to use bowel retraining and regular meal times as a way to help to train your body to be on as regular a schedule as it can be.

Avoid fatty and other trigger foods, and make sure to eat adequate amounts of dietary fiber, particularly soluble fiber. And if you are planning to try the low-FODMAP diet—the elimination of foods that are high in certain carbohydrates for several weeks—work with a qualified dietary professional for best results.

Coping With Pain

The experience of having recurrent bouts of abdominal pain is a defining symptom of IBS. Working with your doctor on an overall treatment plan is a great start, so that you can try to head off symptoms whenever possible. But when you find yourself dealing with bad cramps, spasms, or other types of IBS pain, there are some things you can do:

  • Try placing a hot water bottle or heating pad on your abdomen (over your clothing).
  • Sip some soothing IBS-friendly herbal tea.
  • Take a peppermint oil supplement. Peppermint oil has been shown to be as effective as a prescription antispasmodic in relieving spasms that lead to IBS pain.
  • Use relaxation exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and/or imagery to help to soothe your nervous system and reduce your pain experience.

Social

Many people are not up-to-speed about exactly how the intestines work, so there can be a lot of misunderstanding about IBS. While what you tell others about your condition is your business, sharing your diagnosis and some information about it could work to your benefit as it can make people more understanding of not only how you feel, but why you may need special accommodations—even if that just means an occasional "pass" when you cancel an obligation here and there.

Set the tone of the conversation by speaking frankly about your symptoms. While your condition comes with some undesirable symptoms and circumstances, they are not shameful. If you're not comfortable with going into great day, you can instead say, "I have stomach issues." Explaining how your condition affects your ability to do certain things can help paint a clearer picture.

Connections and Outings

Social connections and contact are essential for physical and mental health. With IBS, you may need to use some assertiveness and creativity to keep up your connections with friends.

For example, if you go out to dinner once a month with a group that's close to you, but the restaurant of choice doesn't offer options that are IBS-friendly, be clear about your needs and consider throwing out other dining suggestions. You might even plan another, non-food-related event (like going to the movies) that you can enjoy with them at a different time.

You have limitations. Be flexible when you can be, but not at the expense of your health.

Your Sex Life

IBS also can take its toll on intimacy. It can be hard to "get in the mood" when your body is giving you so much trouble. The key here is to try to keep communication open to enhance emotional intimacy and to ensure that your partner knows that their needs are also important.

If you are single and dealing with the dating scene, IBS can add to the mix of things that need to be addressed as two individuals try to get to know one another. Share your diagnosis when you feel it's right; you may want to aim for a sweet spot between too soon and too late. For example, if you keep saying no to a certain date idea because it will affect your IBS, that could be misinterpreted as not wanting to go, rather than not actually being able to go.

The silver lining here is that if the other person is understanding and supportive, he or she may end up being a really good candidate for a long-term relationship.

Practical

Whether you are traveling around the country or simply trying to get to the supermarket, you may find that it is not so easy to just get up and go. Preparation will be key.

Scheduling Your Day

Whenever possible, plan your day in alignment with your own body clock. In other words, if your symptoms are worse in the morning, try to schedule appointments later in the day.

For peace of mind, it can be very helpful to have a good sense of where to find a toilet and to always have access to a back-up bag with baby wipes and a change of clothes, in case you need them.

Your Work Life

The unpredictability of IBS symptoms also can make it hard to meet the firm demands of a job. The relationship that you have with your boss will determine whether or not it is best for you to fill them in on your IBS. In an optimal situation, your boss is receptive to your needs and willing to work on incorporating some flexibility into your workday.

You may be reassured to learn that IBS is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

This means that you are entitled to "reasonable accommodations" for managing your physical needs while dealing with your work responsibilities.

If you are in school, it may be helpful to notify school authorities about your IBS and any special needs that might go along with that. You can ask to have a 504 plan drawn up which outlines accommodations similar to those of the ADA.

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