The Top 10 IBS Misunderstandings That People Say to Irritable Bowel Syndrome Sufferers!
by Sophie Lee
If you’ve had IBS for any length of time you will probably have heard some very strange responses to your illness. Many people like to tell us that our symptoms are ‘all in the head, while others decide that they should sagely inform us of the best way to cure an irritable bowel. We hear many, many stupid things.
So, as someone who has IBS for 20 years, here are my top-10 stupid things said to IBS sufferers – see how many you’ve heard!
- It is caused by something you are eating so you should avoid that food to get better.
This appears to be perfectly logical. If you are doing something that hurts you, such as ramming a skewer through your foot, you are best advised to stop that activity.
However, the trouble with this particular piece of logic is that it assumes three things. First, that food is the cause of all IBS symptoms; second, that you know exactly what food is causing the trouble; and third, that you can easily eliminate that food without causing more problems. None of these things are true.
This particular quote does make me angry because it also assumes that you, the IBS sufferer, are such a complete and total moron that you don’t even have the mental capacity to stop eating, say, oranges, even when every time you eat an orange you get sick. It is not that simple.
- You should go to the toilet before we leave so we don’t have to stop on the way.
This one shows that the speaker has not really grasped the phrase “irritable bowel.” It is not a bowel that malfunctions but then pulls itself together when we need to go and visit Great Aunt Maud. Nor is it a bowel that can be relieved and then put back to sleep.
If I am going to have diarrhea in the car then that is where I am going to have diarrhea, whether I have been to the bathroom or not.
- Why don’t you just try this lovely bread/pizza/chili? A little bit won’t hurt you.
A rough translation of this is as follows: “Why don’t you just eat a little of this food that gives you stomach pains that feel like there’s a chainsaw-wielding hacksaw-waving madman inside your intestines, I won’t be the one who has to deal with it and I’m a generally insensitive oaf.”
- Oh yes, my mother had IBS, but she took a pill from the health food store/ate some bran/stopped eating oranges and now she’s cured. Why don’t you do that?
If your mother took one pill and was cured, she did not have IBS. If I took one pill from the health food store, I might be a little bit healthier, but I would not be cured of IBS.
Furthermore, to assume that what “cured” your mother’s IBS will “cure” mine is a little naïve. Does it work that way for any other illness? Do all epilepsy sufferers do the same thing to cure themselves? Do all arthritis patients stop eating oranges and get better?
If one more person tells me how to cure my IBS then I shall stab them.
- I had that last weekend.
You describe your symptoms and someone says, “Oh yes, I had that the other day, but I’m much better now thanks.” No, you had a stomach bug or drank too much. You did not have IBS.
That’s like saying you have clinical depression when you’ve been feeling a bit gloomy for three minutes. Have you had a stomachache for twenty years? No? Well, be quiet then.
- Why don’t you go to the doctor?
I love this one. It’s partly the idea that, again, the IBS sufferer is so brain-addled that the very idea of going to the doctor has not occurred to them—they tried asking for advice from the paperboy, but he really wasn’t that much help.
And I also love the complete naïveté of the person who thinks that doctors cure everything. I suppose it’s usually strappingly healthy people who say this, people who go to the doctor once every ten years for some minor complaint, get some tablets and get cured. So, naturally, that’s how it works for us as well.
Everyone from the arthritis sufferer to the Crohn’s disease patient knows that there are many situations where doctors can only help you manage your symptoms. Sometimes they don’t even do that.
And when we do go to the doctor, we’re often treated pretty badly. I suppose this is partly understandable. If I was a doctor I would want to have as few IBS patients as possible, because we can be very difficult to treat.
However, this does not excuse the fact that IBS patients frequently come out of the doctor’s office feeling worse than when they went in. They feel like the doctor belittled their problems, gave them no new advice, or implied that their symptoms were neurosis in disguise. Doctors can be disappointing people.
- You’re only talking about your symptoms to get attention.
To be honest I’d hope that your wife/husband/best friend would never dream of saying this one, but it’s certainly something that is said to many suffering IBSers.
And you can see where they’re coming from. If I was feeling unwanted and in need of some attention, the first thing I would do is pretend to have a bowel problem. Yes, you lonely people! Say that you’re so constipated you haven’t pooped for three weeks and you’ll get all the attention you want.
- I know that you have IBS, but if you don’t go to this meeting/go on this trip/take this course, you’re fired.
Most employers, of course, are not as blunt as this, but that’s often what they mean. IBS sufferers often find that they have to take a lot of time off work and they sometimes miss very important meetings or events. It can be almost impossible to travel.
But what are we supposed to do? Turn up to the meeting and sit there in excruciating pain? Turn up and run to the bathroom every five minutes while still in excruciating pain? Turn up to the meeting and crap ourselves to prove we’re ill? From what I hear, we often do. You’d be amazed at how much pain and discomfort we can ignore just so we can keep our jobs.
If there was a visible sign on every sufferer to show how much pain we were in, no one would accuse us of malingering.
- What do you mean you’re ill again—I thought you said you were feeling better?
I did say that, but that was last week. This week I feel like death. Next week I may feel like a banana. It varies quite a lot, you know.
You get better after having a cold. If you have IBS you get better periodically and sick periodically, in a lovely little cycle that goes on and on and on.
At first, people are very sorry to hear that you are ill, give you some proper sympathy, and ask if there is anything they can do to help. They ask how you are feeling after a week has passed, and then again after another week. They’re still fairly sorry after a month. After six months, they decide that you’re a malingerer and should be shot.
And last but not least, the most overused phrase in the IBS universe:
- It’s all in your head.
This is, in my opinion, just about the most unsympathetic response an IBS sufferer can get. How is it helpful? How is it supportive? Are you saying that if I just had the courage, the self-possession, the huge emotional capacity that you yourself possess, I could control my bowels?
Because that’s how you control your own bowels, is it not? Every day, through a magnificent feat of mental agility, you direct your digestive system to work smoothly, and if I could just do this too I would be well on the way to good health.
Wait a minute, you say you don’t control your bowels with your mind? What do you mean you just go to the bathroom when your body tells you to—I thought you had a sophisticated mind-bowel control system going on?
So that’s the first thing. Bowels are not controlled by our heads. Yes, if you get nervous then you sometimes need the loo, and yes, there is obviously a mechanism that causes certain emotions to affect the bowel, just as negative emotions and stress can make all kinds of illnesses worse, from asthma to multiple sclerosis.
There is also some research to suggest that IBS is at least partly caused by a complex brain-gut interaction, which leaves IBS sufferers far more sensitive to pain and normal gut contractions than regular people.
But that is not what you are saying, is it? You are saying that my entire IBS experience, for all those years, through good and bad times, has been caused by the fact that I’m neurotic. This is total rubbish.
Not only does this response summarily dismiss all of the evidence for possible causes such as food intolerance and bacterial overgrowth, it also places all blame for the illness squarely at the door of the IBS sufferer. “It’s your fault,” they are saying. “Get a grip. Snap out of it.”
What a complete pile of unadulterated piffle. If anyone ever tells you that your symptoms are in your head, I want you to demand a 100-page, scientific, peer-reviewed, footnoted paper on why they believe this is true.
This is an excerpt from Sophie’s Story: My 20-Year Battle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome by Sophie Lee.
Last update to link: August 2017; last verified December 2023.