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Advocates Report Increased Stress, IBS Symptoms During Pandemic

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic caused unprecedented stress in our daily lives. Research has reported varying experiences among those with chronic illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). We recently completed a survey in which we asked our Patient Leaders how they coped with IBS symptoms from March 2020 through spring 2021.

It is important to remember that everybody's experience with IBS is different. It is also important to reassure our fellow advocates and community members they are never alone.

IBS symptom control

In our survey, on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the worst symptoms, 5 being controlled symptoms), 3 out of 4 Patient Leaders ranked their symptoms at 2, and 1 Patient Leader ranked their symptoms at 1. Two Patient Leaders had trouble selecting an answer because their symptoms fluctuated or they could not really decide whether they had control:

"I have had an increasing number of flares over the past year. There seems to be less time between flares, and the flares are more severe now. While I have been having a really rough time, it has made me appreciate flare-free days even more." – Amy

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"My IBS has gotten worse during the pandemic but not necessarily because of the pandemic. Or at least not only because of it. I have given birth during this time. My entire life changed. And with that, I forgot how to care for my IBS. I started eating trigger foods again without even realizing, forgot how to stay safe when I'm eating out . . . Also, the more I am staying at home, the worse my anxiety about IBS is getting." – Karina

The 2 most bothersome symptoms were diarrhea and bloating/pain, according to 3 out of 4 Patient Leaders. Excessive gas or flatulence was the third-most-bothersome symptom. Lesser problematic issues related to IBS included accidents, nausea, back pain, and restlessness/sleep disturbances.

Stress and IBS

We posed this question to Patient Leaders: Stress is a known trigger for IBS symptoms. Can you share an example of a time during the pandemic you experienced increased/worsening symptoms due to stress?

Amy Dodd Pilkington, IBS advocate"In the first few months of the pandemic, it all seemed overwhelming. As my worries increased, so did my symptoms. Fear started to take hold when loved ones started getting sick. Some spent extended periods of time in the hospital. One passed away suddenly after his symptoms seemed to be getting better. Every time another case was diagnosed in my small town, I worried even more. My IBS symptoms spiked with my fear." – Amy P.

Shannon Grantham, IBS Advocate"In the beginning of the pandemic I worked full time in a walk-in clinic. Once Illinois decided in March 2020 they would begin shutdowns, my clinic closed and never reopened. With hours' notice me and my co-workers were moved to a dedicated COVID-19 clinic. I continued to work there until the stress of it all was causing so much trouble with my gut that I literally couldn't function. Being out of that environment helped. Then my mother was diagnosed with COVID-19. With me being 6 hours away from family, the stress came back. I started losing family members to COVID-19, and that made me realize I needed to move back to be closer to family." – Shannon G.

Karina Ioffe, IBS Advocate "I have always been a bit worried about leaving the house. However, this feeling has gotten so much worse with the pandemic. Before, going out was normal. Despite feeling mildly anxious about it, I would go on walks, shopping, to bars. . . . During the pandemic, leaving the house became a real source of stress. Not only did I fear IBS flares in public, but I was also afraid of contracting the virus. The necessity of wearing masks and sanitizing everything only increased my anxiety. With all of this, I started getting more and more flares when I went out, thus making me even more anxious about leaving the house." – Karina

portrait of Mara B."Near the beginning, I was heavily leaning toward IBS-C because of the lack of regular physical activity I would usually be doing on top of hearing a lot of bad news all at once." – Mara

Share your experiences

How about you? Do you feel like your IBS symptoms have been controlled or worsened by the pandemic? Was stress a major factor? Share in the comments below or visit our forums.

Editorial Note: We recognize that not every person with IBS experiences the same symptoms, triggers, or difficulties related to the condition. If your symptoms have worsened, please contact your healthcare provider.

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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