Issues around body image for IBS sufferers is something that I feel is not talked about enough and consequently I feel quite strongly that I would like to bring this topic out into the open.
To get started, lets explore the term: body image is defined as “perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors related to one’s appearance.”1
IBS can have a significant impact on how we feel about ourselves in terms of physical and emotional wellness which certainly influences our perception of ourselves and our corresponding body image. There is also a impact (or a perceived impact) on our appearance that cannot always be avoided and this does have a detrimental effect on our body image and consequently how we feel about our physical appearance.
I can share my own experience last week to highlight how this effects me personally. Last Thursday I had lunch at a cafe which inadvertently involved an abundance of onion (why does everything have onion!!!) and I also took some medication for a sore back. I am not entirely sure which of these is the culprit, perhaps they both can share the blame, but the result on Friday was decidedly unpleasant. While I was dressing for my day I had to discard some clothes trying to find something comfortable, but didn’t have time to really think about. However, as the day progressed every time I look down at myself I could see my belly growing! By the end of the day I Iooked about 4 months pregnant! Luckily, in my search for comfort, I had decided on a loose shirt that hid my protruding body part, but I couldn’t hide from the impact this had on my emotions and sense of self.
Thinking about it logically, I knew that I hadn’t gone up a clothes size overnight and that it was just my body’s intolerance to what I had put into it. Physically though, I felt bloated and uncomfortable and I was constantly tugging at my shirt hoping no-one noticed my bloated abdomen, or worse (!!), suspected I might actually be pregnant (the horror!). Emotionally, I felt fragile, and my self-esteem took a hit.
An academic article outlines that my feelings aren’t isolated and that “body image often influences both self-esteem and quality of life”1.
I am lucky that I now have a strong physical self-awareness which I have slowly developed over the past three years while managing IBS and following the low fodmap diet. My emotional self-awareness will always need to be nurtured, but at least I am aware of that! I am now able to reflect on what is happening to me physically and emotionally and I am sufficiently able to manage these situations without them causing me too much distress.
This hasn’t always been the case. In the past when I have had similar experiences it has impacted my self-esteem such that there can be a vicious cycle of feeling bad about myself, eating something to comfort me (something high fodmap!), which makes me feel worse about myself and leaves me more bloated (and constipated), and so the cycle goes on.
One way out of this, I have discovered, is to be gently aware (mindful) of body sensations and associated emotional reactions and try to adopt a flexible and positive attitude so that we can avoid these destructive cycles2.
From a practical sense, I do my best to avoid the bloating in the first place and for me this means following a low fodmap diet and avoiding starchy-carbohydrates. I also try to practice mindfulness. Yoga and exercise helps. See if you can find something that works for you.
If you find this post interesting please let me know and I can write more posts on the topic in the future.
2Furness-Smith, P. (2014). Overcoming Problem Eating: A Practical Guide.