How to Help Someone Who Has IBS
Last updated: March 2021
It occurred to me recently, that we read a lot about coping mechanisms for how we deal with living with IBS and how to manage the condition. But, there doesn't seem to be much out there on how a loved one can support someone who has IBS.
IBS doesn't always affect the person who has the condition but it can also affect loved ones too. With the unpredictable and disruptive nature of IBS, it can greatly affect the sufferer and people around them. It's a condition I don't expect everyone to understand and it is also a condition, where if you don't suffer with digestive distress everyday, how are you expected to understand what that person is going through?
I thought I'd write out a little guide for those who know someone who suffers with the condition and may need some advice on how best to support that person and have an understanding of what they are going through.
Read up on the condition
IBS is a condition that is often misinterpreted as a bit of an upset stomach now and again, but it can be so much more than that. There are lots of online resources explaining the condition and how difficult it can be. A huge part of understanding IBS is to understand that although the condition can be made worse through stress, it is not the cause of it. I've come across many people saying to me "maybe you're just stressed." I still experience IBS symptoms in a very relaxed state. Take time to do some research and understand the symptoms can vary greatly for each individual and there can be severe or mild forms of IBS. As an IBS-D sufferer some of my days can be as bad as a what a non IBS sufferer would describe as having a stomach bug. In fact, sometimes it's hard to differentiate between the two.
It is an invisible illness
I think a lot of misunderstanding around IBS comes from that fact that most sufferers don't look unwell, therefor aren't taken seriously. I've felt a great sense of support from individuals who have taken the time to understand how the condition affects me and have not made me feel unreasonable for really struggling with IBS, even though it's not a life threatening condition. From personal experience, never make someone feel like the way they are feeling isn't valued as much as anyone else who is suffering from a chronic illness even if they do look like a picture of health.
Understand that they may be unreliable
IBS can come with good and bad days. Unfortunately these days can't be predicted or planned, so there may be occasions when a sufferer has to cancel. Speaking from experience this isn't something they want to do. Don't make them feel bad for doing this, as I'm sure they would much rather show up than have to miss out on something due to feeling unwell. Having a back up plan may be useful or popping round to their house to keep them company through their flare up may help bring them comfort.
Be mindful that as debilitating and unreliable as IBS can be, that this isn't something the sufferer chose. It is also a condition that they have to come to terms with too and as much as a disruption as it can be to your life, it is also massively affecting their life too. Let them know that you are there for them when they need you. Understand that they might need to know where the bathroom is everywhere you go and if you are traveling, let them know that you are willing to stop whenever they need it. Don't make the individual feel embarrassed about the fact they may have difficult dietary requirements, try to adhere to them as best as you can. And when dining out chose an option that is suitable for everyone, it will help put the sufferers mind at ease.
Understand that you cannot 'cure' their IBS
I've had many people try to tell me things I should be doing differently to help my IBS and whilst this advice is usually coming from a good place I have mostly likely tried it. Unfortunately there is no cure and only ways in which I can help minimise my symptoms. Don't judge the sufferer for deciding to have that alcoholic drink or eating something that they know will trigger their symptoms. Sometimes they just want to feel normal and fit in with everyone else. And sometimes it's nice to have a treat now and again.
Ultimately offer support to the IBS sufferer, let them know that you're there for them. Ensure that they don't feel embarrassed with their symptoms and offer to be flexible with them and their requirements. These little adjustments help so much in making them feel like they're supported and accepted.
Do you suffer from IBS-C, IBS-D, or IBS-Mixed/Alternating?