Medicine Information

Emotional Effects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome sufferers often find that they have to deal with two sets of symptoms. The physical symptoms of diarrhea, constipation and pain form the main part of IBS, but sufferers may also develop emotional problems such as mild or moderate depression and anxiety because of the strain that IBS places on their lives.

There's no doubt that IBS can have a huge impact on your mental and emotional health. One of the reasons why people assume that IBS is caused by stress is that IBS sufferers can appear so stressed and unhappy. But is this really surprising? If you had explosive diarrhea, never-ending constipation or stabbing stomach cramps you'd be a bit stressed too!

The nature of IBS symptoms can mean that they are very difficult to deal with, both practically, in terms of being afraid to go out because of fear of diarrhea, and emotionally, because of embarrassment and the sometimes unsympathetic reactions of others.

Sufferers find that their social lives quickly diminish to nothing, or that they can no longer eat the food at restaurants or dinner parties without ending up in pain. Work or school can become a chronic struggle as you drag yourself in on days when you feel ill, knowing that if you didn't you'd get fired or kicked off your course.

You may also feel that you have to pretend to be healthy most of the time in spite of how you really feel, because people get tired of hearing about your condition or begin to say things like "Well why don't you go to the doctor" or "My mum had that and ate lots of bran and now she's fine. That's what you should do."

It can be very hard to bite your tongue and stop yourself answering back. "Oh, go to the DOCTOR, I see, that's where I've going wrong all this time, I thought you had to go to the hardware store. I shall now be cured."

What is important to remember is that anyone who is battling with IBS is going through a very difficult time, and deserves some genuine support, as does anyone with a chronic, long-term condition.

Hopefully, if you explain your condition to family and friends, support will be forthcoming, but if not you should ask yourself how much misunderstanding you are willing to put up with, and whether it is hazardous to your health.

This is what Heather Van Vorous says in The First Year - IBS: "You may even have friends or family dismiss your problem as 'all in your head.' It's up to you to educate these people, and then dump them if they persist in their ignorance at the expense of your health."

If they are truly your friends then they will want to learn about the condition and be ready to accept that their views are based on prejudice and assumption rather than fact.

But if they still believe that you're exaggerating then ask them to explain exactly why they believe that IBS is psychosomatic or 'all in your head', what scientific studies they are basing their views on, and how they explain the success of new drugs such as the selective 5-HT3 antagonist Lotronex. That should keep them quiet.

Sophie Lee has suffered from IBS for more than 15 years. She runs the IBS Tales website where you can read hundreds of personal stories of IBS and self-help tips.

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