When Someone You Love Has IBS

When someone has IBS symptoms, it can have a profound impact on their friends and family members. IBS symptoms are difficult and stressful for both patients and those around them.

If someone you love has IBS, do not underestimate the power of your support. Research suggests that IBS patients who are in supportive relationships can respond better to stressors that may weaken their immune system. This results in lessening the severity of the symptoms more so than those who do not have social supports around them.

Two Women Talking
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Educate Yourself

To support someone with IBS, it helps to understand what IBS is. IBS is a chronic condition that causes ongoing abdominal pain and bathroom problems. For some, the pain can be quite debilitating.

IBS can cause urgent bouts of diarrhea and chronic constipation. IBS cannot be detected using standard diagnostic testing, but that does not make the condition any less real. IBS is thus classified as a functional gastrointestinal disorder.

The treatments for IBS are limited, but there are some medications that might help. Researchers have also identified certain foods that are more likely to trigger symptoms.


Although IBS symptoms may be exacerbated by stress, they are not caused by stress. Therefore it is not helpful to advise a person with IBS to just "relax" and they will feel better. Similarly, IBS is not "all in someone's head." The dysfunction of IBS may not yet be clearly understood, but research shows that it is very real.

Because IBS is, for the most part, an invisible illness, it can be hard for someone who doesn't have the disorder to understand it. A lack of understanding often leads to a tendency to minimize the distress of the other person. Educating yourself about the biology behind the distress can give you insight and help you respond with more empathy.

Try to remember the worst stomach flu you ever experienced. Remembering how terrible that experience was will give you a glimpse of what it's like for someone who struggles with chronic GI distress.

Follow Their Lead

The person best equipped to make decisions regarding how to handle IBS is the person who has IBS. They know their body best and have learned from experience what works and what makes things worse.

Also, remember that IBS is unpredictable. What works today might not work tomorrow and what was fine last week might not be so fine this week. The last thing someone needs when they are dealing with severe digestive symptoms is to feel like someone is blaming or judging them for something that they chose to do or chose to eat.

Therefore, let them make decisions regarding what to eat, what foods to avoid, and how much to eat.

Don't tell someone with IBS what they should or shouldn't be eating.

Be a Good Partner

Don't expect to be a hero. While your intentions are admirable, IBS is a complex disease. Even doctors find it difficult to treat patients with IBS. Setting an unrealistic expectation for yourself as a savior is only going to add an unnecessary level of frustration for both you and your loved one.

Research suggests that high levels of relationship conflict can worsen IBS symptoms. Therefore, learning some healthy conflict resolution skills is time well spent. This doesn't mean that you have to treat someone with IBS with kid gloves, but rather learn ways to communicate any differing thoughts and feelings in a low-stress, low-drama manner. 

Be Flexible

Unpredictability is a common characteristic of IBS. For some IBS patients, there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind their good and bad days. This can put quite a damper on event planning. Remain aware that it is difficult for a person with IBS to commit to dates, outings, and get-togethers. It is usually a good idea to have a "plan B" in place to soothe strong feelings of disappointment when plans have to be canceled.

Another way you can be supportive is by helping your loved one feel confident about access to bathrooms. It is best to do this without drawing much attention to the matter. You can scope out available facilities ahead of time and point them out to the other person in a quiet, matter-of-fact way. If you are driving, make sure they know that you are quite willing to stop whenever they feel a need to get to a bathroom.

Live a Balanced Life

The simple fact that you are reading this article indicates that you are interested in offering a level of support that is only going to be good for the relationship and for your loved one's health. However, it is important not to overlook the negative effects on your own life when someone you care about is dealing with IBS.

Partners also bear a burden, particularly when their loved one's IBS symptoms are severe. Be sure to engage in activities that are good for you, whether they be hobbies, exercise, or simply curling up with a good book. It's called "healthy selfishness," when good self-care means that you have more to offer others.

7 Sources
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. Roohafza H, Keshteli AH, Daghaghzadeh H, Afshar H, Erfani Z, Adibi P. Life stressors, coping strategies, and social supports in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. Adv Biomed Res. 2016 Sep 29;5:158. doi:10.4103/2277-9175.190935

  2. UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders. What is a Functional GI Disorder?

  3. Volta U, Pinto-Sanchez MI, Boschetti E, Caio G, De Giorgio R, Verdu EF. Dietary triggers in irritable bowel syndrome: Is there a role for gluten?. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2016;22(4):547-557. doi:10.5056/jnm16069

  4. Qin HY, Cheng CW, Tang XD, Bian ZX. Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2014;20(39):14126-31. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126

  5. National Institutes of Health. Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

  6. Gerson MJ, Gerson CD. The importance of relationships in patients with irritable bowel syndrome: A review. Gastroenterol Res Pract. 2012;2012:157340. doi:10.1155/2012/157340

  7. Wong RK, Drossman DA, Weinland SR, et al. Partner burden in irritable bowel syndrome. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2013;11(2):151-5. doi:10.1016/j.cgh.2012.07.019

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.