How to Deal With an IBS Attack

Stay Calm, Relief Will Come

Woman holding cup of tea and hot water bottle
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As you may well know, an attack from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be debilitating. Crippling pain, panic about finding a bathroom, the embarrassment that your symptoms may become known to others, and fears of having an accident can all add and become quite a nightmare.

Once you have 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 when you are having an IBS attack.

There are also ways to reduce your risk of experiencing an attack in the future.

Note: This article discusses ways to handle the pain and bathroom symptoms associated with IBS. If your symptoms are unusual or particularly severe or accompanied by fever, difficulty breathing, persistent vomiting, or signs of bleeding, you should seek medical attention immediately. 

The most important thing to do during an IBS attack is to remain as calm as possible. This may be difficult because it can be an awful experience. Yet, the calmer you can remain, the quieter your symptoms will be. Here are some things you can do to soothe your agitation and symptoms.

Use Heat for Comfort

During an IBS attack, it can be very helpful to apply heat to your abdomen using either a heating pad or hot water bottle. Be sure to place clothing or some other cloth between the heat source and your skin so you don't get burned.

Besides offering much-needed psychological comfort, the heat may help relax the muscles of your colon. This can, in turn, reduce spasms and cramping.

Sip Calming Tea

Sipping a warm cup of IBS-friendly tea can be very soothing, which is what you need during an attack. Peppermint tea may offer an additional benefit by reducing the painful spasms and cramps.

It may even help prevent repeated trips to the bathroom.

Breathe Deeply

As you may know, the body's natural stress response can impact your digestive system, worsening your symptoms. When you breathe deeply, you are sending a message to your body's emergency response system that there is no emergency. This can help calm your body, turn off the alarm, and quiet your symptoms.

Breathing deeply can also calm your central nervous system and this too can reduce your pain experience. To get the maximum benefit while in the middle of an attack, it is best to practice deep breathing exercises on a regular basis. It becomes easier each time and can become a powerful tool you can do anywhere and anytime an IBS attack strikes.

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 will get to the bathroom on time. I need 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."
  • "This will pass. My doctor has reassured me that my diagnosis is IBS, which means that these terrible symptoms will quiet down. I just need to take good care of myself to help make that happen."

Use Pain Management Strategies

Pain during an IBS attack can be quite intense. However, you do not have to be a passive victim. Since anxiety can enhance the pain experience, both your deep breathing and calming self-talk will help lessen the misery.

Another good method for handling pain is guided imagery. The technique engages your mind and body along with the power of your imagination to bring about a sense of pain reduction.

Remain Calm in the Face of Symptoms

After a bad attack, it is easy and common to fear the next one. You may yourself on alert, scanning your body for signs and symptoms, even when there's nothing to worry about.

The problem is that this anxiety may actually increase your chances of having another attack. After all, sometimes a stomach rumble is just a stomach rumble. Give your deep breathing a try and see if you can quiet your system by remaining calm.

Keep a Symptom Diary

Keeping track of your symptoms in a diary can help you identify any possible patterns that may be triggering your attacks. For example, knowing that you are more likely to experience attacks in the morning can help you plan your day. You can put yourself in situations where you are better able to handle any symptoms that might arise.

Practice Stress Management Activities

Studies have shown that regular use of mind/body practices can help your body remain calm and lower your chance of triggering another attack. There are a variety of things that you can do to keep your baseline anxiety level low.

You might try, for instance, learning a few relaxation exercises, joining a yoga class, or working on your meditation techniques. These things take practice and may be frustrating at first. However, if you stick with them you will soon discover the benefits and, besides, they're rather enjoyable.

Eat Carefully

Your system might be more sensitive than usual after an attack. Beyond foods that you know are safe, it may be helpful to limit your food to those that are low in FODMAPs until you feel better.

Studies have consistently shown that the low-FODMAP diet can reduce symptoms of IBS. However, it's not recommended for long periods of time. Restricting too many foods for too long can lead to nutritional deficiencies and that will not help your overall health.

Additionally, you can try to eat small meals spaced evenly throughout your day. It is a better approach than large meals, which may contribute to gut spasms.

Work With Your Doctor

It is important that your doctor is aware of the severity of your symptoms. He is in the best position to make sure that you have the correct diagnosis.

If your attacks are quite frequent, your doctor may prescribe something for relief. Some medications are available that address specific IBS symptoms while they are happening. Others are available for treating either diarrhea predominant IBS or constipation predominant IBS directly. 

A Word From Verywell

When you're experiencing an IBS attack, try to remain calm and remember that it will pass. Use any of the techniques discussed here and it's likely that you will soon find relief. Also, if you can employ stress-relieving techniques in your daily life and be careful about what you eat, you may find that your attacks and symptoms are less severe and frequent. 

Source

Ford AC, 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.

Laird KT, Tanner-Smith EE, Russell AC, Hollon SD, Walker LS. Comparative Efficacy of Psychological Therapies for Improving Mental Health and Daily Functioning in Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. 2017;51:142-152.

Nanayakkara WS, Skidmore PM, O’Brien L, Wilkinson TJ, Gearry RB. Efficacy of the Low Fodmap Diet for Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The Evidence to Date. Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology. 2016;9:131-42.

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