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, days may often be spent dealing with an unpredictable bowel or making accommodations so that one can eat without worsening IBS symptoms. While these and other struggles can be emotionally draining and challenging, there are strategies that can help people adjust and live high quality lives despite an IBS diagnosis.

tips for coping with ibs

Verywell / Laura Porter

Emotional

IBS can interfere with someone's ability to enjoy family meals and get-togethers with friends. It can affect their ability to be the parent or partner that one would like to be, or to fulfill commitments.

This can lead to feelings of guilt and self-blame, as well as stress. It's important that people living with IBS cut themselves some slack and ask that others do the same. Nobody is making the choice to miss out—remember IBS is the disrupter.

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

In many ways, a calmer mind means a calmer body (and, in this case, a calmer gut in particular). With this in mind, remember to make time for relaxation and activities to find joy too.

Physical

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 someone running to the bathroom the next. In this regard, changes to the diet are as much a coping strategy as they are a treatment one.

Follow a healthcare provider's instructions as to what to eat and work together with them as you try eliminating foods to see how they affect your IBS. Start and keep up with a food diary, so it is easier to look for patterns among foods eaten and symptoms.

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

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

If bathroom issues flip back and forth between episodes of constipation and diarrhea, one will want to use an approach that encompasses all of the tips above. In particular, people may find it helpful to use bowel retraining and regular meal times as a way to help to train the 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 a healthcare provider on an overall treatment plan is a great start, so that one can try to head off symptoms whenever possible. But when one finds themselves dealing with bad cramps, spasms, or other types of IBS pain, there are some things that can be done:

  • Try placing a hot water bottle or heating pad on the abdomen (over 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 the nervous system and reduce the pain experienced.

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 it is a personal decision to share health information, sharing a diagnosis and some information about it could work as a benefit because it can make people more understanding of not only how it may feel, but why accommodations are necessary—even if that just means an occasional "pass" when an obligation is canceled here and there.

Set the tone of the conversation by speaking frankly about symptoms. While IBS comes with some undesirable symptoms and circumstances, they are not shameful. If uncomfortable with going into great detail, try saying, "I have stomach issues." Explaining how IBS affects one's 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, some assertiveness and creativity may be needed to maintain connections with friends.

For example, if a routine restaurant of choice in a friend group doesn't offer options that are IBS-friendly, be clear about health needs and consider throwing out other dining suggestions. Someone with IBS might even plan another, non-food-related event (like going to the movies) to enjoy with friends at a different time. Most importantly, considering the health needs of the group in event planning processes is the bare minimum of solid friendship.

Choose friends who do not expect anyone to do things at the expense of their health. While finding friends like this may take some time, they are worth the wait.

Sex Life

IBS also can take its toll on intimacy. It can be hard to "get in the mood" when the body is giving someone so much trouble. The key here is to try to keep communication open to enhance emotional intimacy in a way that ensures all parties know their needs are important.

If single and dealing with the dating scene, IBS can add to the mix of things that need to be addressed as individuals try to get to know one another. Discuss life with IBS when it feels right; one may want to aim for a sweet spot between too soon and too late. For example, if one keeps saying no to a certain date idea because it will affect 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, they may end up being a really good candidate for a long-term relationship.

Practical

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

Scheduling

Whenever possible, plan the day around body patterns. In other words, if 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, just in case.

Work Life

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

It may be comforting to learn IBS is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

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

If in school, it may be helpful to notify school authorities about IBS and any accommodations that might go along with that. Try asking to have a 504 plan drawn up which outlines accommodations similar to those of the ADA.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the different types of IBS?

    The different types of IBS include diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D), constipation-predominant (IBS-C), and alternating type (IBS-A). People can switch types throughout different points of their lives.

  • How is IBS diagnosed?

    IBS can be diagnosed by excluding other possible causes of symptoms, but recent guidelines recommend a positive diagnostic strategy. Using this method, a healthcare provider would perform a physical exam and order limited lab testing, such as a complete blood count and C-reactive protein test. This strategy has been found to speed up the diagnosis and save money.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lacy BE, Pimentel M, Brenner DM, et al. ACG clinical guideline: Management of irritable bowel syndromeAm J Gastroenterol. 2021;116(1):17-44. doi: 10.14309/ajg.0000000000001036

Additional Reading

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.