A problem shared: Help me - IBS is ruling my life

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This is really embarrassing, but I have been suffering with Irritable Bowel Syndrome for almost a year now and it is ruining my life.

I am 21 years old and I have had to drop out of university and move back in with my parents because the symptoms were so bad that I couldn’t keep up with the work for my course.

It all started from when I had a bug which made me ill for a couple of weeks. After that, the stomach problems I’d suffered with have continued and got worse and worse over time.

Sometimes my stomach is so uncomfortable that I feel like I can’t leave the house and I have to make excuses to stay at home. I always feel better when I know I am close to a toilet. I panic when I know I won’t be.

Travelling has become a nightmare that I avoid whenever I can. I wouldn’t dream of doing most of the things I used to love, like going to the cinema. I have a part-time job but I worry constantly when I am there in case the pain gets too bad or I have to keep going to the toilet.

I am so embarrassed by this problem and I don’t feel like I can talk to anyone about how bad it is. I don’t see much of my friends anymore because I am too embarrassed to tell them about it. I think they just think I am miserable when I say I can’t meet up with them.

Because of IBS I have lost all of my confidence and I am thinking about my stomach all the time. I have seen a consultant at hospital who says he has given me the strongest medication he can. It helped for a bit, but I don’t think it makes much difference anymore.

He said that I need to learn to relax because the constant anxiety is making it worse, but I don’t see how I can relax when my body is behaving like this and my life is on hold.

I am tired of stressing about it all the time but I really don’t know how to change things.

I have been discharged from hospital now as there is no more they can do to help me and I am scared that I am going to be like this forever.

Jo advises:

You are suffering from a medical condition that is having a debilitating effect on you - but what is making you so much more unhappy is your attitude to it.

Your letter is riddled with self-loathing; brimming with shame. How incredibly sad. It’s time you realised that you are making things much worse for yourself. Instead of desperately seeking another cure - something your specialists have categorically told you they can’t give you - I think you must start to find ways of managing your symptoms. Scores of people who have IBS - a painful, distressing and puzzling illness - do precisely that. They refuse to let it rule things.

At your age, you should be living life to the full, not living like a recluse. You can’t even go to the pictures for fear of not being able to get to the loo in time. And it sounds like you are going through all of this on your own. Rather than tell friends you have an illness, you prefer them to think you don’t want to see them. All because you’re burning with shame.

I do understand that what makes your situation worse is that most people simply don’t understand how severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome can be. Some think it’s little more than a ‘nervous stomach’ suffered by those who tend to be affected by stress - which is partly true, but far from the whole story. Try explaining it to your friends; educate them. Then realise you have the power to have a positive effect on your condition. Get practical day to day advice from your doctor, keep a food diary to see if certain things trigger your attacks and refuse to let this condition take you over. Start living.

Nik advises:

The symptoms of IBS, as you’ve found out the hard way, can be incredibly debilitating.

All of your worrying regarding your schoolwork, friendships and day-to-day activities is no doubt exacerbating the symptoms, making an already uncomfortable situation far worse than it needs to be.

It’s time to face this embarrassment you perceive and give yourself (and your stomach!) a well-deserved break. It sounds as though you are already as miserable as you’re going to get, so it’s time to come clean to the friends you trust about your condition. If you don’t feel like going out, invite them to see you, safe in the knowledge that your own bathroom is close to hand if you need it. Would you want your friends to be honest with you if they were in your position?

And this problem isn’t going to go away on its own. You say you’re tired of stressing about it - exactly. The stressing must stop, it’s time to be firm with yourself. After all, the mind is a powerful thing. If you constantly fret over your stomach, imagining the worst outcomes and giving into panic, of course you’re going to have trouble. As harsh as it sounds, it’s time to give yourself a kick and reclaim your life.

Find an activity that you enjoy and are comfortable doing; something that allows you time to relax and forget about your stomach. Look into relaxation classes, or try something physical like yoga or pilates to try and restore some balance to your body. Address this now and I have no doubt, once you’ve conquered your problems, you’ll be able to get your studies - and your life - back on course. Make up your mind to do so.

Emma Corrigan, A Hypnotherapist at Stepping Stone Hypnotherapy in Sheffield advises:

There is a very strong link between stress and IBS.

I am almost certain that your anxiety about your symptoms will be making them much worse, putting you in a vicious cycle. The more you worry, the more discomfot you will be in.

In my clinic I help lots of people with IBS learn how to relax, cope better with stress and develop techniques so they can manage their symptoms by themselves. A great way to get started on taking control of your IBS is by listening to a relaxation tape. Play it when you are at home and feeling safe and comfortable.

Listening to a tape like this on a regular basis will help you let go of stress and will allow your body to rest. There is a downloadable relaxation track available on my website. Go to www.steppingstonehypnotherapy.co.uk

What would you advise? You can offer your own words of wisdom. Send your 200-word answer to this week’s problem. We’ll publish the best next week. Write to jo.davison@thestar.co.uk (include A Problem Shared in the notes field and add your name, age, occupation and area of

Sheffield you live in).