Week 1: Understanding irritable bowel syndrome

Week 4: Healthy thinking, healthy self

Week 5: Balancing activity and reclaiming your life

Week 6: Maintaining your gains and staying well

Exploring the impact of irritable bowel syndrome

As you may know first hand, irritable bowel syndrome can impact every aspect of your life. So far, we have focussed on irritable bowel syndrome symptoms and their immediate consequences. Here, we delve deeper into the broader impact of irritable bowel syndrome and discuss the different ways that it can impact your daily life. Of course, the impact of irritable bowel syndrome will differ depending on the person and their symptoms. However, studies amongst large groups of people with irritable bowel syndrome have identified some common areas of impact. Below, we discuss a few of the main ones. 

Work and study

Functioning at work and in education is commonly impacted by irritable bowel syndrome. The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome can make it difficult to concentrate on and perform tasks well. Depending on your job, irritable bowel syndrome symptoms can also interfere with your ability to complete work duties and meet commitments. For example, someone with irritable bowel syndrome may struggle with jobs that demand frequent travel, physical activity, intense concentration and long periods without access to a toilet. It makes sense then that people with irritable bowel syndrome have higher rates of absenteeism. That is, their symptoms cause them to miss work or study more often than most other people. This can lead to poor performance, disciplinary action, missed opportunities, and financial difficulties. 

Social relationships

Social life and relationships are also commonly affected by irritable bowel syndrome. People with irritable bowel syndrome are often anxious about their symptoms in certain social settings. They may worry that they won’t have access to a toilet or that their symptoms will be visible to others. They fear embarrassment and therefore shy away from ‘risky’ situations. Social events with food can also be tricky places to navigate, especially for irritable bowel syndrome sufferers with certain food sensitivities. As such, many people avoid these kinds of settings. Research has shown that people with irritable bowel syndrome are more likely to eat alone, meaning they miss out on the social aspect of food. 

People with irritable bowel syndrome may find it difficult to tell others about their difficulties. As we mentioned last week, speaking about toileting is often frowned upon. Many would rather avoid social events, than have to explain their symptoms to others. This can damage relationships and leave people with irritable bowel syndrome feeling very isolated. Even without a fear of social judgement, pain and discomfort alone can cause someone to avoid socialising. Spending time with others is not much fun when you’re feeling lousy. Similarly, irritable bowel syndrome can take a toll on your sex life. It’s hard to ‘get in the mood’ when you’re in pain and symptoms like bloating leave you feeling self-conscious. 

Activities and leisure

People with irritable bowel syndrome tend to withdraw from their usual activities and leisure pursuits. The usual range of symptoms often account for this withdrawal. For example, pain, bloating and changes in bowel habits can take the fun out of previously enjoyable activities. These symptoms can also make household chores even less appealing and achievable. Some people also withdraw from leisure activities because they directly trigger their symptoms. For example, physical activity can trigger a bowel movement in some people with irritable bowel syndrome. 

Then there’s the issue of being without a toilet. This rules out fun activities like kayaking, bushwalking and horseback riding, where you are without proper facilities for a period of time. The chances of having an accident tend to outweigh the potential for fun in most cases. In addition, some people with irritable bowel syndrome suffer from fatigue and poor sleep. When you’re feeling tired and without energy, you’re less likely to participate in your usual activities and engage in your hobbies. This is just another way that irritable bowel syndrome can impact your life.

Appearance and self-esteem

For some people, irritable bowel syndrome can cause dissatisfaction with appearance. For example, extreme bloating can lead some people to feel self-conscious and dissatisfied with their shape. They may worry about the way they look and feel restricted in terms of the types of clothing they can wear. They may also avoid certain contexts (e.g., swimming or yoga) that require tight or revealing clothing. As such, they miss out on enjoyable experiences that could also be beneficial for their health and symptoms. Worries about appearance can also impact self-esteem and intimacy in relationships. 

Travel

Travel often involves unexpected delays and periods of time without access to a toilet. Whether it be walking to your local shop or flying around the world, you are likely to be without a toilet for at least some of the time. Travel is often stressful for people with irritable bowel syndrome, given that the symptoms are unpredictable and can involve urgently needing to open your bowels. There’s a higher risk of being caught off guard and having an accident. As such, many people with irritable bowel syndrome avoid short and long distance travel. This severely restricts your freedom and can be life limiting in many ways.