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10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has IBS

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Updated February 21, 2013

10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has IBS
Photo: Bruce Ayres/Getty Images

Does someone in your life have IBS? Due to the personal nature of the symptoms, you may be uneasy and unsure as to how to handle this. You may be tempted to joke about it, as that is how our society typically handles our discomfort with "bathroom issues", but that may be the last thing that the person with IBS needs. Here are some other examples of things that you should not say to a person who is dealing with IBS:

1. "I think it is all in your head."

Besides the fact that this a classic example of "blame the victim", you would be dead wrong. IBS is a complex health disorder and researchers have found numerous ways in which the bodies of individuals who have IBS are different from those who don't. Be a good friend and learn more about these differences:

2. "Just relax and you will be fine."

While it may be true that for some people their IBS is worsened when they are stressed, there are many other factors that contribute to IBS symptoms. Relaxation exercises can only go so far in terms of preventing or reducing digestive distress. You will be seen as unsupportive and ignorant if you try to be overly optimistic and reassuring.

3. "You are hogging the bathroom."

Or worse: "You stunk up the bathroom!" People dealing with IBS are already quite self-conscious about the amount of time that they spend in the bathroom and tend to be understandably embarrassed about smells relating to defecation. Drawing attention to their bathroom habits is only going to make them feel more stressed about the disorder, which in turn can aggravate their symptoms.

4. "You are the bathroom expert, where is the nearest one?"

Similar to #3, most people with IBS do not want any further attention drawn to their bathroom problems and certainly do not want the title of "expert". In fact, they would very much like to go back to being blissfully unaware of digestion.

5. "I'm sure you can hold it."

If you are out with a person and they tell you that they have an urgent need to get to the bathroom, the kindest response is one in which you do everything in your power to help them to find one. They are the the only one who can judge how strong their urges are and worrying that you will be slowing down their access to a bathroom is only going to increase their distress.

6. "Let's get fast food."

Certain foods can aggravate a sensitive digestive tract. Fast food options tend to be high in fat, a known GI irritant and one that can contribute to painful intestinal contractions.

7. "Should you be eating that?"

Stay out of the other person's food! They are the ones who best know their bodies and like everyone else, they want the freedom to make their own food choices. People with IBS often find that a food that is a trigger one day may be just fine on another day. Respect their right to figure this out on their own.

8. "You would feel better if you exercised more..."

"...or ate healthier, or got a better job, or dumped your boyfriend." There are no fast and easy cures for IBS, therefore none of the options are going to make everything okay. They are only going to make the other person angry with you for being a meddlesome know-it-all.

9. "This worked for me."

IBS is different for every person. Some people have very mild cases, with occasional flares, while others are debilitated by the disorder. In addition, something that helps one person might end up worsening symptoms for the next person. Although it is okay to offer advice when asked, offer it with the sensitivity that it might not be a cure-all for everyone.

10. "You are no better, your doctor is obviously not helping you. Shouldn't you go for more tests and/or get a second opinion?"

As of now there is no cure for IBS. So it is unfair to assume that a doctor is not helping because a person is still dealing with symptoms. Going from doctor to doctor and taking test after test is unnecessary unless a person's symptom picture changes significantly. The best scenario is when a patient has a good working relationship with their doctor. If your friend or family member is happy with their doctor, it is a good idea for you to respect that.

Five Helpful Things to Say to a Person Who Has IBS

1. "I am so sad that you have to deal with this. You certainly don't deserve this."

Many people who have IBS feel that this is somehow a personal weakness or a mark of shame. Supportive statments in which you acknowledge the unfairness of the situation can go a long way toward helping a person to reduce any unnecessary and unearned negative self-judgement.

2. "What can I do to help?"

This demonstrates to the other person that you are willing to follow their lead in terms of determining what is best for them.

3. "I would love to spend time with you. What activity are you most comfortable with?"

IBS symptoms are extremely changeable. By allowing the person with IBS to take the lead in terms of planning activities, you are allowing them to make decisions based on how they are feeling. Similarly, be open to changing plans quickly, should the other person experience a worsening of symptoms.

4. "How would you best like to manage this?"

IBS patients often struggle with commitments such as travel and parties. Giving them control as to how best to manage the event helps to reduce their anxiety and increase their comfort level.

5. "What foods are you comfortable eating?"

There are numerous health disorders in which people are restricted as to what they can eat. Be respectful of the IBS patient's conclusions about food when choosing a restaurant or serving them a meal in your own home.

For More on What Things Not to Say:

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  4. Daily Life
  5. Friends & Family
  6. 10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has IBS

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