Astrid Hancock
reviewed by Dr Michael Yapko
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Astrid Hancock
Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Bathroom Banter: How to Talk About Having IBS


Yep, it's just like the book says: everybody poops. So, why then is it so hard to talk about it? These days, people talk openly about all sorts of medical issues and relationship problems. Yet, discussions of bowel movements and toilet visits are usually avoided. Poop might be totally natural, but it's still a taboo topic connected to feelings of shame and embarrassment. Sounds unfair? It is. Especially if you're one of the millions of people worldwide suffering from a gastrointestinal condition like IBS.

Many people with IBS find it difficult to talk to their family and friends about their condition. Bringing up uncomfortable symptoms like cramps, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation isn't always easy–particularly for younger people, private people, and people who have been newly diagnosed. Bodily functions aren't always fun topics of conversation—and that's okay.

However, if hiding your condition is starting to get in the way of your confidence or your relationships (for instance, if you're too scared to use a friend's bathroom outside your home) then it might be time to sit down and have a real conversation about what it's like to live with IBS.

Feeling stressed? Try talking to a friend about your condition.

How to talk to someone about IBS

First off, you don’t have to include the graphic details of what living with IBS is like (unless you want to, of course—sometimes you just gotta share that story of when an IBS flare-up went haywire). When starting conversations about your condition, you can explain as little or as much as you feel comfortable with.

Sometimes, it can be enough to say you have “digestion problems” or a “GI condition”. For most people, that will suffice. If they ask about more detail, it’s good to think in advance what you want to say. For instance, you can explain that you have specific gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms you can usually control; however, they can sometimes act up unexpectedly, so you may need to stay close to a toilet some days.

With family and friends who know you more intimately, you might want to be more open. Talking about IBS usually gets easier as you get more comfortable with the condition yourself. You might want to explain that:

  • IBS is a chronic condition; this means it's long term and will not go away. 
  • The symptoms can vary from very manageable to very bad. When it gets disabling, IBS can force you to stay home from work or social activities.
  • There is no magic cure for IBS (even if they heard of one!) and everyone has a different experience. 

As a part of the conversation, you can also talk about your triggers, such as specific foods and stress. Tell them you need to be careful about what you eat. Some things they might enjoy might not be on your menu anymore. Let them know what you can and can't do (it’s setting boundaries time!). 

Shy pooper? Set boundaries and let people know when you need more privacy.

How do I talk to a new partner about IBS?

We've all been there. You've met someone new and you've reached a stage of your relationship where you have to use a toilet at their house. If you're nervous about experiencing symptoms of constipation or diarrhea outside your home, then it might help to be upfront about it before you find yourself trapped in the bathroom. A few things to say to your new partner might be:

  • I have a GI condition that affects my digestion, I'm a little (shy/anxious/etc.) about my symptoms, so I'd like to talk to you about it.
  • My condition can be unpredictable, so if I suddenly leave the room, don't be offended.
  • I need my privacy. If I've been in the bathroom for a while, don't come looking for me.

Depending on how comfortable you are, you can say more or less— or even make a joke about it (it's just pooping, after all! Everyone does it).

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Tips to guide your conversation

Aly Semigran, who has had IBS for over two years, suggests the following strategies when talking about IBS:

  • Be direct about it. 
  • Don’t keep it a secret (it will only make your stress levels worse).
  • Don’t be apologetic about it. It’s not your fault. 

If you avoid the conversation about your gut issues and keep canceling plans, your friends and loved ones could misinterpret your behavior. It’s better if you explain what’s been going on; it will be a burden off your shoulders (which means less stress!). Tell them you value your friendship, but that, sometimes, your chronic condition might affect your activities.

Remember, you’re not alone. Around 1 in 7 people have IBS, so chances are you are closer than you think to someone who is going through a similar thing (and would be happy to share their experience). The more we talk about it, the more normal it will get. 

The Wrap Up

Talking about IBS with your friends, family, or partner might not be easy, but it can make your life easier. By having an open conversation about your condition and your needs, you can reduce your stress and make it easier for people to understand what you're going through. There's no need to get into the details (unless you want to!)—you can just explain the main points, like how IBS is a chronic GI condition. If you're feeling embarrassed, try to keep in mind that at the end of the day, it's really not that weird of a conversation topic. After all, everybody poops!

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