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

The importance of social support

Read the following statements made by irritable bowel syndrome sufferers: 

  • “I feel so unattractive when I’m bloated, I don’t like my partner seeing me like that” – Jen
  • “It’s so embarrassing when my girlfriend hears me in the toilet, I bet she thinks I’m disgusting” – Kevin
  • “My friends don’t understand irritable bowel syndrome, I think they think I’m making it all up” – Maree
  • “I feel like such a drag, I don’t know how much longer my friends will put up with me” – Li
  • “If I cancel again I won’t be invited out anymore” – Perry

Do any of these statements resonate with you? Do you sometimes feel like this too? 

It is well known that strong social support leads to better health. The same applies to irritable bowel syndrome. Your relationships can either have a positive or negative effect on your experience of living with irritable bowel syndrome. Stronger social support predicts better illness outcomes, whereas social isolation is linked to worse outcomes for people with irritable bowel syndrome. As we have discussed, irritable bowel syndrome commonly has a negative effect on people’s social life and relationships. As such, it is important to consider your own relationships, how they interact with your irritable bowel syndrome, and vice versa. 

Friends and family should ideally be educated about irritable bowel syndrome and the ways in which it impacts you. Ideally, friends and family will understand that your symptoms are unpredictable. It helps if the people around you are flexible and accepting when plans need to be changed at the last minute. Rather than scolding you, they will hopefully be able to offer some comfort and support. Supportive friends and family also steer clear of blame, humiliation and criticism. They are sensitive to your needs and will not make jokes about your condition. 

An overbearing friend or family member may actually reinforce your irritable bowel syndrome. For example, they may constantly ask you about how you’re feeling or how your symptoms are. They may also be too forthcoming with advice, which can feel overwhelming. Whilst their intention may be good, their constant questioning can keep you focussed on your distress. Research shows that people with irritable bowel syndrome often do much better when they feel in control of their health. As such, it’s best if you take the lead on your healthcare decisions and kindly request others take a back seat.  

It is also important that you try to maintain your social life and relationships. In some cases, however, people with irritable bowel syndrome struggle to talk to their friends and family about their irritable bowel syndrome. Keeping your irritable bowel syndrome to yourself can make social outings particularly stressful. Without knowledge of your symptoms, friends and family can’t make adjustments or support you. They may therefore plan things that exacerbate your symptoms, making for an unpleasant situation. Generally, people will be supportive when they find out. In the unfortunate case that someone is unsupportive, it is ok to prioritise yourself and avoid contact with them. 

Take a moment to think about your own relationships. How do they affect your irritable bowel syndrome? Do you generally feel supported by the people close to you?