Your body can send you an alert that you’re nervous or anxious in a lot of ways. Maybe it’s sweaty palms or a quickening heart rate. Or maybe you’ve noticed that when you’re nervous, nature calls.
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There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We’re all human and we all have to go. And it’s actually quite normal that our emotional state affects different parts of our bodies as well.
So, let’s get right down to it: Why do we poop when we’re nervous?
Because our gut and mind are linked, it’s common for feelings of nervousness or anxiety to trigger things like nausea, diarrhea and even constipation.
Gastroenterologist Christine Lee, MD, shines some light on the subject.
How does being nervous or anxious affect your body?
When you’re nervous or in a state of stress, your body reacts using the fight-or-flight response. This response releases stress hormones that send an “alert, alert!” message to the rest of your body.
“These hormones affect the body, including the gut, to shift swiftly into stress mode,” explains Dr. Lee. “This incites a surge in energy, heart rate goes up, blood pressure rises and the level of alertness is heightened. This is the body’s way of generating power, readiness and the capital needed to get through the stressful situation and away from danger.”
Why does being nervous make you poop?
Even though your gut and brain are part of two completely different organ systems, there’s an undeniable link between the two. This is why it’s common for stress and anxiety to impact your digestive system.
The driver behind this is adrenaline hormones — and the message they send to your gut. Imagine there’s a telephone wire connecting your digestive system to your adrenal glands — a part of your endocrine system that produces hormones important for regulating various bodily functions. When you feel stress (say, preparing before a big interview or feeling embarrassed during a first date), your hypothalamus — a small area of your brain involved in hormonal regulation — sends a message to your adrenal glands. They, in response, release hormones like cortisol, serotonin and, of course, adrenaline.
“There are more serotonin receptors in the intestinal tract than in the brain. Because of this, serotonin has just as big of a role in the intestinal tract as it does in the brain,” adds Dr. Lee.
While all these hormones are running amuck and sounding alarms, your gut can jump into action. “It can make your stomach turn,” she continues. “It stimulates the intestines, creating waves of contractions in the colon.”
That’s when the grumbling starts. “These contractions give the feelings of butterflies in your stomach,” she says. “It can cause a constellation of symptoms of nausea, gas, bloating and crampy abdominal pains.”
But what leads your stomach to literally cause you to high-tail it to the bathroom — well, that comes shortly after this hubbub of intestinal activity. This is because the actual need to poop doesn’t necessarily come from the stress itself, but from the release of this stress.
“There are compensatory responses that help you recover from the adrenaline rush,” Dr. Lee notes. “Everything relaxes, and what was on hold is released. This counter-response can cause symptoms of nausea, pain, flushing, diarrhea or even sweating.
“Immediately after the adrenaline rush is when everything may start to hit you at once,” she adds. No kidding!
In other words, your sudden urge to hit the porcelain throne is less of a sign that you’re nervous and more of a sign that your body is coming down from that nervous feeling. It’s a result of your body, well basically clenching when you’re under stress, but then once it resolves, your body gives the all-clear to … let go.
“And then, everything that was backed up gets released and everything re-opens/relaxes,” Dr. Lee states.
How to keep your stomach happy to avoid nervous poops
If anxiety-induced pooping is a bit too much of a regular occurrence for you, there are some steps you can take to calm your gastrointestinal tract.
To calm your digestive system and help avoid nervous poops, try to:
Find a diet that works for you
Dr. Lee points out that a good diet is paramount for improving your mind-gut relationship.
A balanced diet of vegetables, whole grains and proteins is the best place to start. A 2017 study found that a plant-based diet was helpful for relaxing your bowels — but that’s only if you combine that with a good exercise routine (more on that in a moment).
Depending on your diet and your symptoms, you also may need more or less fiber.
Practice mindful eating
What you eat is important, but how you eat is just as crucial. Your digestive tract can definitely be affected if you’re eating too fast or are in a stressful environment (yes, we’re talking about that quick drive-thru run on your way to work). This is why mindful eating is a good habit to incorporate into your everyday meals: Slow down, take your time and don’t forget to chew!
Listen to your body
Sometimes, the little reactions our body sends us (even if they lead to an extra-long trip to the bathroom) are easy to ignore during our busy lives. But it’s important to be aware of any messages your bowels are relaying to you. “Make sure your body is well maintained,” advises Dr. Lee. If you feel bloated or constipated, that’s a sign that you have more stool in your colon than you think, which could lead to more problems down the line.
Keep up with a core-based exercise routine
Exercise is a great way to get your digestive system moving in the right ways. “It’s good to do exercises with emphasis on your mid-core,” recommends Dr. Lee.
“Core strengthening exercises can help strengthen your abdominal muscles to improve the quality of defecation, leaving less stool behind in your colon,” she says.
Over time, this can lead to fewer episodes of abdominal distension, bloating, gas, cramping and diarrhea.
“You have to figure out what works for you as far as making sure your mid-core stay active and strong,” Dr. Lee continues. “The most important medicine is regular exercise.”
Don’t hold it!
Another helpful step is to make sure you’re always answering nature’s call. Even if the urge to go #2 comes at a less-than-perfect time, holding it in won’t do you any favors in the long run. In general, whether you’re nervous or not, if you have to go — go!
“Your body makes waste every day; waste is always better out of the body than in,” states Dr. Lee.
She adds that stool retention (holding it in) can lead to problems like:
- Gas and bloating.
- Abdominal distension.
- Overflow diarrhea.
- Diverticulosis and diverticulitis.
- Rectal prolapse.
“High-quality bowel movements can lessen the need to keep going back. Poor quality bowel movements lead to more frequent, sometimes urgent, bowel movements later in the day,” she adds. “In times of stress, nervousness or anxiety, you’re less likely to have the unwanted side effects of cramping, bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain.”
How to manage nerves and anxiety
Keeping your gut healthy is only half of the equation. If you find that your anxiety or stress responses are aligned with your sudden urge to run to the bathroom, it can be very helpful to find ways to calm your mind.
Here are some different things you can try to manage your nerves and anxiety:
- Identify and avoid stressful situations. Easier said than done, of course. But Dr. Lee notes that it’s key to recognize what situations, people or experiences are your triggers. Your stress is an important way to get to know your mind (and body) better. Something like a job interview isn’t worth missing just because you’re stressed, but if there are certain people adding tension to your life, try setting boundaries to see if it improves your mental and physical well-being. Once the triggers are identified, you can better prepare or know how to manage or avoid them altogether.
- Try deep breathing and aromatherapy. One of the first things you can do when you feel stress come on is to take some deep breaths. To up the calming potential even more, combine that deep breathing with some relaxing scents. You can try essential oils like peppermint oil, which may help relieve nausea and fatigue for a helpful dose of aromatherapy. See if these simple activities can help you reduce your stress response.
- Journaling and being mindful. If you feel like your stress responses are coming out of left field, one good way to get a handle on your triggers is to practice mindfulness. You can do this by keeping a daily journal or simply taking moments throughout the day to do some breathwork and check in with your body. Allow yourself the space to become more aware of your response to different situations.
- Feel your feelings. You may be feeling backed up (in more ways than one) because you’re ignoring your feelings. If you’re experiencing a difficult situation such as a loss or overwhelming responsibilities, acknowledging your feelings is sometimes the first step toward relief. Even a good cry once in a while can help create a release that you may need.
When to see a doctor
It’s true that everybody poops. It’s also true that everybody, at one point or another, will deal with stress. So, it’s fairly common to have bowel movements that are influenced by mental stressors.
But when is it a sign that it’s something more serious?
“A lot of GI symptoms are nonspecific,” says Dr. Lee. “Any GI symptoms that are new to you and or affecting your lifestyle, I would recommend seeing a gastroenterologist for evaluation to identify the cause and help mitigate those symptoms.”
It can be hard to determine what’s causing a sudden rumble in your gut, but there are some ways to know if you’re dealing with something like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“Irritable bowel means an absence of clear organic disease within the colon. However, IBS colon is more sensitive to both internal and external triggers,” Dr. Lee explains.
So, that means it’s sensitive to a wide variety of factors such as hormones, stress, medications, environment, travel, temperature changes and so forth. In other words, a nervous stomach could affect you more if you have IBS.
If you’re feeling any of the following symptoms accompanied with nervous poops, be sure to talk them over with a healthcare provider:
- Black-colored stool.
- Pale-colored, floating stool.
- Weight loss with no explanation.
- Blood in your stool.
“If you’re feeling things like gas, bloating, fecal urgency and frequency, and sensation of incomplete evacuation, I recommend you see a healthcare provider to help address these symptoms,” stresses Dr. Lee.
Different parts of your body are constantly in communication with each other. So, it’s normal for certain symptoms or reactions to be interconnected — such as having a sudden urge to poop when you’re nervous. But if you’re feeling that connection a little too frequently, the best way to find relief is to become a part of the conversation between your gut and your mind. And maybe invite your doctor to the chat as well.
“No one knows your body better than yourself,” notes Dr. Lee. “Any symptom that’s new to you and fails to improve/resolve completely, I recommend you see your primary care doctor or gastroenterologist.”