How to Deal With an IBS Attack

Woman on bed with cramps
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It can be very upsetting to have to deal with an urgent IBS attack. Debilitating pain, panic about finding a bathroom, embarrassment that your symptoms may become known to others, and fears of having an accident can all add up to be quite a nightmare. Once you have had a bad IBS attack, it is common to remain on edge, wondering when the next attack will occur. Luckily, there are things that you can do to help yourself to deal with an IBS attack and reduce your risk for experiencing continued attacks.

Note: This article discusses ways to handle the pain and bathroom symptoms associated with IBS. This article will be helpful if you are wondering if your pain is reflecting something more serious than IBS:

During the Attack

The most important thing to do during an IBS attack is to remain as calm as possible. I know this is tough to do because attacks can be so awful, but the calmer you can keep yourself, the quieter your symptoms will be. To keep your body calm, it is best to use a three-step approach:

1. Breathe deeply.

When you breathe deeply, you are sending a message to your body's emergency response system that there is no emergency. This will reduce the effects of the body's natural stress response on your digestive system, helping to ease your symptoms. Breathing deeply also serves to lessen anxiety and therefore will help to reduce your pain experience.

2. Use calming self-talk.

During a bad IBS attack, you want to talk to yourself as if you were soothing a good friend who is in distress. Doing so will cut through those panic-related thoughts that only serve to agitate your system further. Here are some helpful things to say to yourself during a bad attack:

  • Slow down. I need to work to keep myself as calm as I can while I find my way to a bathroom.
  • No one will judge me. Other people will not think badly of me if they realize that I am having stomach trouble. People are generally kind and sympathetic when faced with illness in others.
  • My body will hold it in. I need to remember that my body is very good at holding things in until I reach a bathroom. The calmer I remain, the easier it will be for my rectal muscles to do their job. (See "How to Prevent Bathroom Accidents")

3. Use pain management strategies.

Pain during an IBS attack can be quite intense. However, you no longer have to be a passive victim. Since anxiety can enhance the pain experience, your deep breathing and calming self-talk will both serve to lessen the pain experience. Heating pads and sipping warm cups of tea can also help to ease your suffering until the attack passes. 

After the Attack

Once you have had a bad attack, it is common to be very worried about having another attack.

You may find that you go on alert, scanning your body for signs and symptoms that it is going to get bad again. The problem with this is that this anxiety about future attacks may actually increase your chances of having another attack. The following steps will help you to break out of this Catch-22 situation:

1. Remain calm in the face of early symptoms.

Sometimes a stomach rumble is just a stomach rumble. Kick in your deep breathing and see if by remaining calm you are able to keep your system quiet.

2. Keep a symptom diary.

Keeping track of your symptoms can help you to identify any possible patterns in terms of triggers for your attacks. For example, knowing that you are more likely to attacks in the morning can help you to plan your day better so as to put yourself in situations where you are better able to comfortably handle any symptoms that might arise.

3. Practice regular stress management activities.

There are a variety of things that you can do to keep your baseline anxiety level low to reduce the probability that you will have continued IBS attacks:

4. Eat carefully.

After a bad IBS attack, your system might be more sensitive than usual. Choose foods that you know are soothing and make sure that your eating patterns aren't going to set off your system:

5. Work with Your Doctor

Although medication options for IBS are somewhat limited, the list of available options is increasing. Your doctor may be able to prescribe you a medication that can lessen your chances of future attacks or offer you a medication that can provide you with pain relief when your symptoms are at their worst. 

Sources:

Farhadi, A. “I Have IBS…Now What?!!!SanitizAir, Inc. 2007.

Ford, A., et.al. "American College of Gastroenterology Monograph on the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Idiopathic Constipation" American Journal of Gastroenterology 2014 109:S2-S26.

Hellström, P. "Characteristics of Acute Pain Attacks in Patients With Irritable Bowel Syndrome Meeting Rome III Criteria." The American Journal of Gastroenterology 2011 106:1299-1307.

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