Having IBS While Pregnant Means Navigating These 10 Emotional Stages
I’ve lived with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for over two decades. And while it's been difficult at every stage of my life, for various reasons, having IBS while pregnant was by far the most taxing. Growing another human being in your body and enduing a slew of emotional stages with varying degrees of intensity seems somewhat synonymous, but those emotional stages are very, very different when you're also living with IBS.
IBS is the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder, with approximately one in 10 people afflicted, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Still, IBS can make someone feel incredibly isolated and alone. And while scientists with the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine & Digestive Center report that people with IBS who are pregnant can manage their symptoms with exercise, stress reduction, and changes in diet, I know how difficult it is to deal with IBS while also growing at least one human inside your body; a body that can feel mean-spirited in its unpredictability.
As a young kid, having IBS was difficult because I was too embarrassed to discuss my symptoms at sleepovers or in school. As a teenager it was difficult because, I mean, there’s nothing "hip" or "cool" about your life revolving around what’s going on with your large intestine. And as an adult it was (and is) difficult because the symptoms of IBS can interfere with your life in ways that impact your job, your relationships, and your self-esteem. But when I was pregnant every day — no, every moment — I struggled to make it through the following emotional stages. If you, too, are managing a pregnancy and IBS simultaneously, know that you're not alone and you're probably going through one of the following stages, too:
Stage 1: Confusion
What am I feeling? Is it cramps? Am I about to have an accident? Is the baby hiccuping? Do I have gas? Is this a baby kick? A fetus punch? Will clenching impact the baby?
Pregnancy can be confusing regardless, but when you also have IBS it feels like gestating is just being bombarded by so many questions, and receiving very few answers.
Stage 2: Denial
It’s not IBS, it’s pregnancy issues. It’s not pregnancy issues, it’s IBS. When you’re stuck in the back and forth denial stage it’s easy to be hard on yourself. But when the pain strikes and you’re forced to rush to the bathroom the denial ends and you’re on to the next emotional stage of having IBS while pregnant.
Stage 3: Horror
I was someone whose IBS wasn’t limited to constipation. I had the works, which, according to WebMD, include diarrhea, belly pain, and gas. It was awful. The sounds that escaped my bathroom were noises you’d expect to come from a labor and delivery wing of a hospital. Or a horror film. It was honestly too much to handle some days, and I’m thankful I made it through such a crappy (pun intended) pregnancy.
Stage 4: Anger
It sucks to plan your day around trips to the bathroom. It sucks to feel limited in your food choices because the "wrong meal" could leave you anchored to the toilet for at least 30 minutes. And, honestly, it's OK to feel angry. Hell, I felt angry. From rage poop to rage poop I wished I had a less problematic large intestine. But this, too, shall pass. Literally.
Stage 5: Sadness
What do you get when you cross a pregnant person with a chronic IBS sufferer? Depends. No really, Depends products come in handy when you’re dealing with IBS while pregnant, but the necessity of these items can make you feel kind of sad. We all have this idillic, not remotely realistic but nonetheless alluring picture of what pregnancy should look like and what our experience should include, and when you have IBS that picture can be very, very out of reach.
Stage 6: Self-Blame
Maybe there’s something I could have done differently, or something I could have changed to prevent myself from suffering as much as I did. Maybe I was being punished by some higher power. Maybe all those times I told people they were full of sh*t were coming back to haunt me.
Is it rational? No. But it's almost impossible to not second guess yourself and every decision you have or have not made in the past. It's difficult to not blame yourself because, well, who else are you going to blame? But the cause of IBS is unknown, according to the Mayo Clinic, and the potential causes — like the muscles of the large intestine, the nervous system, or infection — are entirely out of our control.
Stage 7: Worry
It's easy to joke about laughing or coughing so hard that you pee, but the stress that comes from mistaking gas for, you know, something else, is rarely discussed. Living with IBS, especially when your pregnant and your body is constantly changing, is scary. You never know when you're going to poop your pregnancy pants.
And, of course, there's concern for your fetus, too. Pregnant people with IBS are at a higher risk of miscarriage, according to WebMD, and diarrhea related to IBS can cause severe dehydration, putting women at risk for pre-term labor. Again, IBS during pregnancy can be managed with changes to diet, exercise, etc., but it's scary, nonetheless.
Stage 8: Dread
Feelings of hopelessness that wouldn’t go away were far too common. I dreaded trips to the bathroom because I knew I’d be in pain, I just didn’t know for how long. I couldn’t escape the mind-numbing fact that I had no control over my bowels. And that feeling — of a complete loss of bodily autonomy — can fill someone with an overwhelming amount of dread.
Stage 9: Acceptance
So, this is life. I’ve made it this far and I’ll carry on some way, some how, because that's just what you do. My IBS doesn’t define me. It might not be easy to manage, especially when I'm pregnant, and it may scare me sometimes, especially when I'm pregnant, but I can do this. I will do this.
Stage 10: Planning
Want to know where the nearest restroom is located? I got you. Want to know how long it will take to find a single-stall bathroom? I'm all over it. If this is how it's going to be, I am going to plan accordingly.
When you have IBS and you're pregnant you're like a human GPS. I knew that if I planned ahead, as best as possible, I could at least feel like I had some hand in what may or may not happen with my bowels. (And this amount of planning really comes in handy when you have a baby, FYI.)