How I Survived Campus Life With IBS

Though it's been 20 years since I first developed and was diagnosed with IBS, I still remember very clearly how I struggled to find my footing and survive the next few years of campus life while working toward my college degree. I am hoping reading about my experience can help you too.

When I first started having IBS flares, I lived in a corridor-style dorm building with a communal bathroom. This was more stressful for a number of reasons, not least of which was the anxiety of anticipating that strangers on my floor who shared a public bathroom with me could be or did become privy to the intimacies of my bathroom habits. Most of us like to keep details about our bowel function private, and that's hard in such a situation as I was in. My IBS progressed to a level where I lost approximately 20 pounds in a single semester (I was already very thin). I was weak and exhausted and ultimately had to take a medical leave of absence for a semester to recover.

8 things I did to return to college after battling IBS

As I recovered and received my diagnosis, I formulated a plan for returning to school. Here is what I did:

  1. I argued for a medical accommodation of a private bedroom and to live in a dorm suite with a private bathroom, which I was granted. Having more privacy when I felt sick, both in my bedroom and knowing I had a private bathroom, helped alleviate significant anxiety and also ensured I had better access to a bathroom (which was much closer to my room). The only downside was I was charged double for the room despite it being a disability accommodation, but I paid it at the time because I desperately needed it as part of my recovery.
  2. I changed my diet and became more conservative in what I ate. The campus food was notoriously bad and no doubt a large trigger to my IBS. I learned to pinpoint a few relatively safe foods and stuck almost entirely to them, resulting in fewer flares.
  3. I argued for a revised meal plan. Initially, I argued to be released from my meal plan altogether so that I could prepare my own meals in my suite or dorm building. There was a rule that underclassmen living on campus at my college were required to have an on-campus meal plan. I appealed to the administrator and he would not grant an exemption (in hindsight and more learned about these things, I realize his refusal was probably a violation of my disability rights and I could have filed a complaint), but he "compromised" and offered me a reduced meal plan that only functioned during the week. This allowed me to prepare my own meals on the weekends and meant I was spending much less on-campus food that bothered my sensitive gut that I could instead invest in IBS-friendly foods.
  4. I prepared more of my own food and tried to pay attention to what bothered me and what didn't and made adjustments accordingly.
  5. I reduced my coffee intake. I still drank coffee though; it would be a few years till I gave it up. In retrospect, it probably would have been in my interest to quit coffee and opt for tea for all those all-nighters.
  6. I discussed my medical needs with those professors I felt comfortable with, so they could offer some flexibility on assignments or class attendance. This doesn't mean I gave them details about my IBS; I just alerted them that I had a medical condition that sometimes compromised my ability to attend class or always file assignments on time. Most were understanding. Again, knowing what I know today, I might have been even more firm about this and filed a formal request with my university's disability office for accommodations. At the time, though, this helped. For the most part, I didn't miss much class and mostly handed in assignments on time. But for those few times I couldn't, it helped that professors knew why and were informed ahead of time because they were more lenient with me. It meant I couldn't goof off otherwise, so they knew I wasn't using my medical condition as an excuse to not do the work. I remained on the honor roll throughout.
  7. I didn't drink too much. Campus life and one's college years are often a time marked in the U.S. by heavy and frequent alcohol intake--usually in the form of binge drinking. I didn't drink at all the first two years of college and only around the time I came of age. When I did drink, I drank moderately and didn't binge. I knew it would bother my IBS so I made sure to be conservative in my drinking. Nothing would be worse than being at a party or bar and needing to use a bathroom and have a potential accident!
  8. I reduced stressful factors in my life. When I first developed IBS I was taking a 16-credit course load and working several jobs that came to 20 to 30 hours a week in addition to my classes. After I returned from my medical leave of absence, I decided to never take more than the 12-credit minimum required for full-time students even if it took me a little longer to graduate. I halved my working hours to an average of 12 to 16 hours (they went up in the summer when I wasn't taking classes). I found this helped me out a lot--I had more time to engage in self-care like eating and sleeping healthier--that was essential to keeping my IBS under better control.

I hope these tips might be helpful for others now attending college or about to.

Did you have IBS in college? If so, what has helped you manage your IBS better? Answer in the comments below!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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