Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a common gastrointestinal disorder affecting 1 out of 10  humans worldwide. It is a poorly understood syndrome, consisting of plenty of  medically unexplained symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in  bowel habits (constipation, nausea, diarrhoea). 

Diagnostic process 

Doctor-patient relationships are often fraught with conflict and perceived stigma. For a  long time, medical professionals doubted the existence of IBS and suggested it was the  patient’s mind producing symptoms. A diagnosis can help with the confusion. As  doctors have to tick several diseases off the list, the diagnostic process is still long, and  patients point out feeling passed around in this process. They are often not taken  seriously, told “we can’t find anything wrong with you” and keep looking for new  professionals in hope of a cure. 

However, a diagnosis does not represent a solution to the problem. Medical  experiences can influence how a patient feels and acts about an illness. A recent study  found that most healthcare encounters for people with IBS do not help them cope with  the suffering. Rather, it induces a new form of suffering through feelings of confusion  and anger. Moreover, there is no identified cure, and treatments are focused on  managing symptoms, which leaves patients in a constant search for answers, as well as  feeling frustrated and helpless. 

Social stigma around IBS 

Long-term medical conditions often lead to social stigma. The unpredictability and  uncontrollability of IBS makes this illness especially vulnerable to stigmatisation. The  symptoms are inconsistent and disrupt normal activities—pain, frequent bathroom 

breaks, and a very restrictive diet might make life a living hell. Work, social interactions,  and travel might become significant challenges for those with IBS. Patients even report  fear of eating and of soiling themselves in public. 

IBS patients can experience severe anxiety because of the social undesirability that  comes with altered bowel habits and feel inadequate and faulty, which results in  increased social isolation. Negative remarks and delegitimizing comments from others  can make people try to hide their condition. However, it is a constant and draining  struggle, where each social interaction has to be calculated. Imagine not being able to  let your date cook for you or having to explain your diet each time you go out with a  new friend! Digestive issues can be hard to talk about, it’s not just like having the flu, so  patients usually conceal their illness to minimise stigma. 

Over time, patients get more accepting of their illness, themselves, and their bodily  patterns. It might change how they interact with society, but it becomes part of the  routine and they learn how to live with it. Here you can read some tips on how to  manage your IBS. 

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach  here.  

Roza Sara Somlai is an Educational Psychology and Counselling student at Eotvos Lorand  University. She is currently an intern at Willingness.


Lacy, Brian, Fermín Mearin, Lin Chang, William Chey, Anthony Lembo, Magnus Simren,  and Robin Spiller. 2016. “Bowel Disorders.” Gastroenterology 150: 1393-1407 

Bertram, S., Kurland, M., Lydick, E., Locke, G. R., 3rd, & Yawn, B. P. (2001). The patient’s  perspective of irritable bowel syndrome. The Journal of family practice, 50(6), 521– 525. 

Casiday, R. E., Hungin, A. P., Cornford, C. S., de Wit, N. J., & Blell, M. T. (2009). Patients’  explanatory models for irritable bowel syndrome: symptoms and treatment more  important than explaining aetiology. Family practice, 26(1), 40–47. 10.1093/fampra/cmn087 

Björkman, I., Simrén, M., Ringström, G., & Jakobsson Ung, E. (2016). Patients’  experiences of healthcare encounters in severe irritable bowel syndrome: an  analysis based on narrative and feminist theory. Journal of clinical  nursing, 25(19-20), 2967–2978. 

Cunningham-Pow, B.. (2018). Digesting Stigma: Exploring the Illness Experience of New  Zealanders with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (‘It’s just shitty’).doi:10.26686/ wgtn.17069150.v1