Dealing With 'Sympathy IBS'

You know how when you see someone else throw up, you feel like throwing up? That reaction actually has a name: “sympathy vomiting.” It’s apparently an ancient evolutionary survival response: If one of our fellow cave-dwellers loses their lunch because it’s spoiled or poisonous, it could be something we all ate – so we’re wired to lose our lunches too. Gross, but nifty, right?

It could be related to mirror neurons in our brains that enable us to feel empathy for other people and “mirror” what they’re doing. For example, you may be likely to tear up yourself when you see other people cry. Or, when some guy on TV gets kicked in the beanbag, all the men in the room cringe involuntarily. And most of us women do, too – we can easily put ourselves in their shoes.

What is sympathy IBS?

I’m susceptible to what I jokingly call “sympathy IBS.” Sometimes when I read about other people’s struggles with flare-ups and symptoms, I can empathize to the point of feeling symptoms myself. Who knew that stomach cramps were contagious? No, they’re not really contagious, of course, but on days when I’m already feeling out of balance, emotions can trigger a flare-up.

It’s a myth that IBS is psychosomatic or caused by stress, but there’s certainly an emotional component for many of us. You can read about the gut-brain connection here on IrritableBowelSyndrome.net, and learn how mind and body aren’t necessarily the separate entities we may think they are. For me, I tend to “feel” with my stomach.

It’s not limited to reading about IBS, either.

Social media is a real double-edged sword for me: While I love positive stories that lift me up, I also feel drawn to stories that tear me up. For example, when I read about terrible injustices, animals being mistreated or children who are very ill, sometimes I feel my stomach begin to gurgle in what sounds like anger and distress. It takes some deep breathing, going for a walk or rubbing my cat’s soft, furry belly to settle things down. Sometimes all three!

While I’m not a religious person, I do find that a version of the well-known Serenity Prayer by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr helps me re-center myself, too.

May I find the serenity to accept the things that, for now, I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

The prayer actually continues with this phrase, which also resonates with me:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace.

Embracing this mindset doesn’t mean I can’t or don’t feel sympathy for other people, especially my fellow IBS sufferers. Empathy is a critical component of the human experience. But causing ourselves to suffer too doesn’t help anyone, does it?! I know that I can best help others by first taking care of myself. That includes working on feeling my feelings in the organ where they best belong: my heart! Not my gut.

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