Feeling anxious and can't seem to leave the bathroom? Here's what's going on (plus, seven things you can do that may help).
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If feeling super anxious about important life moments—a looming work deadline, family coming to visit, going on a date—has you spending exorbitant amounts of time on the throne leading up to the big event, you're not alone.

"Stress pooping is essentially an anxiety-induced bowel movement," says Isaac Tourgeman, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Albizu University in Florida. "As if the stress itself isn't bad enough, some people also have to contend with embarrassing and uncomfortable instances of urgency and unwanted pooping."

Nervous poops may be a frustrating phenomenon, but they're totally normal. This is because when the stakes are high, the brain knows it—and so does the gut.

Why Anxiety Causes You to Poop More When You're Stressed

During moments of heightened anxiety (or even in anticipation of a stressful situation), the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system activates and orders the body to release hormones, such as adrenaline, cortisol and serotonin.

"These hormones act like little messengers in our bodies to relay information, and our organs act accordingly to respond to the information received," says Samantha Nazareth, M.D., a New York-based board-certified gastroenterologist.

The vagus nerve, which runs from the brain all the way down to the feet, transmits these signals and lets the body know it's time to fight or flee and to prepare accordingly. Part of that readiness is getting rid of anything that might weigh the body down or take up important bodily resources—including waste.

"The cascade of stress hormones and vagal nerve activation cause the muscles in the GI system to contract, leading to diarrhea or a sudden urge to poop," says Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and board-certified nutrition specialist.

Because of how intertwined the crosstalk is between the brain and gut, stress pooping can become a supporting character in a person's life—a frustrating cycle where increased stress leads to gut distress, then the gut sends signals back to the brain that cause continued stress and anxiety.

"Over time, stress can cause levels of gut bacteria (the gut microbiome) to become unbalanced, which leads to changes in neurotransmitter function and perpetuates increased stress and anxiety in the brain," says Beurkens.

Aa stressed poop emoji on a designed background
Credit: Adobe Stock / shawlin

How to Stop Pooping When Stressed

Fortunately, there are several ways you can take action to prevent your nervous system from hijacking your bathroom routine; all of which involve—you guessed it—chilling out.

"The number one strategy would be to reduce stress, especially when eating and digesting," says Tourgeman. "For proper digestion, our bodies need to be in a state of rest and relaxation."

Here, expert-backed strategies to help your GI tract become a stress-poop-free zone.

1. Breathe deeply

"Slowing the pace of your breathing (preferably through the nose and extending the exhale) helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system in order to regulate the sympathetic response," says Beurkens. Whereas the sympathetic nervous system elicits the fight-or-flight response, the parasympathetic nervous system quite literally helps you rest and digest.

This can be done in the moment when you feel your stress levels rising, but also proactively throughout the days leading up to a big event, to keep anxiety—and associated bowel distress—at a more manageable level.

If you're not one for sitting still, try a walking meditation to help with mindfulness and stress reduction.

2. Adjust your diet

If you're able to anticipate and know when a big event's going to happen, you can adjust your diet accordingly to avoid rushed trips to the bathroom.

"The day before the big event, avoid poop-inducing food groups, like dairy, overly seasoned [read: spicy], fatty and fried foods, as well as coffee and alcohol, all of which can cause extra stimulation in the GI tract," says Nazareth.

Eating smaller, more frequent meals on those days can also help prevent overstimulation and keep digestive upset to a minimum.

3. Eat mindfully

Mindful eating involves creating a soothing environment, eating slowly, chewing thoroughly and not engaging in other activities—especially stress-inducing ones—while eating.

"Too often our meal times are spent dealing with other factors," says Tourgeman. "The business lunch can be an efficient way to complete transactions, but when this style of eating becomes habitual, the body and gut suffer."

4. Keep peppermint on standby

"Peppermint tea, diluted peppermint oil or even a natural peppermint candy can soothe stress-related GI distress," says Beurkens. "Use these in the moment to help calm an anxious stomach." (We're big fans of this loose-leaf, caffeine-free peppermint tea. Buy it: $9 at DavidsTea.com.)

5. Lighten your schedule

Since your body's on higher alert than usual leading up to a big life moment, offsetting the anxiety by lightening your schedule can help balance the scales (and your bowels).

What usually takes your mind off things? Thinking back to other stressful times, what were the soothing activities that helped you see them through?

Giving yourself more breathing room to focus on these modalities—reading, walking in nature, watching comfort shows—engages the body's rest mode, says Nazareth, calming your stomach in the process.

6. Gargle

The vagus nerve runs through the back of the throat, which provides a unique opportunity for helping to tone (strengthen) its ability to more flexibly shift between sympathetic (fight-or- flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system responses.

"This nerve can get a bit weak and lazy, which makes it more likely to get stuck in sympathetic overdrive and more difficult to shift back into the more calm and regulated parasympathetic mode," says Beurkens. "Gargling with water (about 6 to 8 ounces, 1 to 2 times per day) is a great way to tone the vagus nerve and keep it more responsive."

Because it's a strategy that works over time, you need to practice with it and not expect it to help with your anxiety symptoms immediately.

"But over days to weeks, many people notice a significant difference in their ability to stay calmer in the face of stressors (and spend less time running to the bathroom)," says Beurkens.

If gargling's not your thing, she adds, loud humming, chanting and singing can help regulate your nervous system and reduce nervous poops at the same time.

7. Time your number-two session accordingly

"Some athletes empty their bowels before competition as a way to reduce the likelihood of runner's trots—the urge to defecate while running," says Tourgeman. "The same strategy can also reduce the incidence of a bowel movement being triggered by anxiety when a stressful event is pending."

That way, you'll have the least amount in your system during the big moment and won't miss out on the experience by worrying about your bowels.

But if you can't seem to get your stress pooping under control despite your efforts, consider talking to your doctor about it. "Stress pooping is quite common," says Nazareth. "However, if it's happening frequently, in the middle of the night, you see blood, have a fever or are experiencing pain, it's time to see a doctor."