Coping with IBS

Matthew Solan

Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be painful, annoying, and embarrassing. There is currently no cure for this complex condition, and managing its symptoms and flare-ups is tricky. So, coping mechanisms are a constant need.

What are the symptoms of IBS?

IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder in which your gut becomes more sensitive, and the muscles of your digestive system have abnormal contractions. People with IBS usually have abdominal pain along with frequent changes in bowel habits (diarrhea, constipation, or alternating between both). Other common symptoms include

  • bloating and gas
  • urge to move the bowels, but being unable to do so
  • incomplete bowel movements
  • urgent need to move the bowels.

Because no one knows what causes IBS, it is impossible to prevent it. Once you have been diagnosed, the goal is to focus on managing the condition. You can do this by identifying specific triggers of your IBS symptoms and then adopting strategies to make them less severe and frequent.

The most common approaches are dietary changes — eliminating or reducing problem foods — and stress management techniques, such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Certain supplements and over-the-counter and prescription medications also can help. Your doctor can help you implement these strategies and advise what medications to take.

Coping with IBS day-to-day

People often need additional assistance, especially when it comes to coping with the awkwardness and emotional turmoil of living with IBS. Here are some ways to get the extra support you may require.

Join a support group. Talking with others who are dealing with IBS can help you cope with your disorder’s stress and anxiety. The online community Irritable Bowel Syndrome Self Help and Support Group offers moral support and information, including news about recent studies on IBS.

Prepare for public outings. Don’t let IBS keep you from enjoying an active social life. Being mindful about your IBS can help you avoid potential problems. For example, always note the nearest bathroom and try to sit close to it. When eating out, try to review the menu in advance. If there are no agreeable meals, you can eat beforehand. Also, don’t be afraid to call it an early night if your IBS is acting up. People will understand if you say you are simply not feeling well.

Share with someone. Not everyone needs to know about your IBS, but tell a few friends and coworkers so they can cover for you when symptoms appear.

Have an emergency kit on hand. Always keep spare underwear, clothing, toilet paper, wet wipes, and a large plastic bag on hand just in case.

Don’t rush bowel movements. This can help reduce the stress of having to use the bathroom all the time. Set aside a regular time or times each day to have a bowel movement. Give yourself the time you need so you can relax. When you push, be sure to avoid excessive straining. It can help to elevate your feet using a footstool.

Related Information: Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome


  1. Jocelyn Berthiaume

    I’ve seen a lot of people suffer from IBS in my life.

    Relief always came down to eating more naturally; avoiding processed foods, increase fiber intake, reduce carbohydrates. Cooking more often than not. Crohn’s dieting was highly effective.
    Of course, when you identify trigger foods, take those out of your food habits!

    Also, light exercise helps tremendously. Only going for a light jog for 15min for 5 days a week was instrumental in achieving long lasting relief.
    Does IBS ever go away? Not in my experience. But symptoms can be reduced to increase quality of life. I’ve found chiropractic adjustments to be helpful as well.
    Best of health friends.

  2. Laurel

    I used to have IBS. I tried all the things recommended and ultimately ran across a suggestion online. At this point I can’t remember the source. However it recommended using oatmeal, preferably as little processed as possible. I started eating steel cut oats daily as breakfast with fruit and yogurt. I’ve never used milk since dairy is one of my problems . Yogurt doesn’t seem to be an issue, maybe because it’s cultured. I still eat steel cut oats probably three times a week but I don’t have to eat it daily anymore.

  3. Todd

    I have IBS. I have been seeing an endocrinologist and having my hormones brought to the appropriate levels (specifically testosterone) for two years now. It has improved my IBS symptoms by 90%. Literally changed my life. I’m just throwing this out there for anyone who may want to explore the same avenue – it’s worth a conversation with your doctor.

  4. Dasaeb Lopez

    Avoid highly processed foods, red meats trans fats, glutens, high sugar and high sodium foods.

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