You're out and about, coffee in hand, and the urge hits: You really have to go number two. For some people, this can be their worst nightmare. We get it: Your poop might stink, someone will know what you're doing in the stall and there's the whole is this seat clean? thing to contend with.
So, here's the deal: If you feel trepidation about going #2 in that stall, you're not alone. Up to 32 percent of people may have some sort of public poop worry, according to ToiletAnxiety.org. (The site is run by researchers at Swinburne University in Australia.)
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Whether you're just a little grossed out by the thought or you full-on try to avoid going at all costs, it's worth it to try to get more comfortable with the concept — for your gastrointestinal health at least.
"People definitely have anxiety related to defecating in a public bathroom," says Justin Maykel, MD, a gastroenterologist and colon and rectal surgeon at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worchester, Massachussets.
But when you gotta go — you should go. "We don't recommend that people defer bowel movements. Holding in stool develops bad bowel habits and can ultimately lead to constipation, hard stools and straining," Dr. Maykel says.
Over time, that contributes to other problems, like hemorrhoids or difficulty evacuating (aka pushing stool out), which can create long-term issues.
Here are some things you can try when nature calls, depending on your top concern:
Public Pooping Problem 1: Your Poop Smells
Sure it does — we all have our unique poop scent, and it tends not to be pleasant.
If you're worried about stinking up the joint, carry and use a toilet water spray, like Poo-Pourri, an essential oil spray that creates a barrier on the water's surface to trap volatile odor chemicals below so they never have a chance to populate the bathroom.
Public Pooping Problem 2: Is the Seat Clean?
Maybe it helps to know that your smartphone may have 10 times the germs of regularly-cleaned toilet seats, according to microbiologist Chuck Gerba's research at The University of Arizona.
If sitting on the seat is a concern for you, Dr. Maykel recommends scouting out bathrooms that you know are cleaned regularly (often there's a time stamp of the cleaning crew on the door), which may alleviate some worries.
Of course, you'll want to wipe down the seat if it's wet or visibly dirty, but if it looks dry and clean, there's probably nothing to worry about. Even if there is an illness-causing bacteria there, it would have a tough time getting into your body unless you have an open wound. Just make sure you wash your hands after you flush (we're sure you were planning to do that anyway!).
Public Pooping Problem 3: You're Worried About COVID
If you're avoiding going because you're concerned something or someone you come in contact with in a public restroom could end up infecting you with COVID-19, take these precautions suggested by Harvard Health Publishing:
- Wear a mask
- Use your foot, toilet paper or a paper towel to touch any surfaces
- Don't touch your face while you're in there (don't take your phone out either)
- Wash your hands thoroughly before you leave
Public Pooping Problem 4: Your Nerves Are Too Wired to Go
Try deep-breathing exercises. Breathing in and out through your diaphragm (aka belly breathing) taps into the body's natural relaxation response and serves as a nice distraction that can get you out of your head.
According to Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan, these breaths also massage your GI system, encouraging a bowel movement.
To do it, inhale through your nose for four seconds, filling your belly up with air, then hold your breath for two seconds and exhale through your mouth for six seconds. Repeat as many times as feels good.
Public Pooping Problem 5: Other People Might Know What You're Doing
There's a term for this poop-related toilet anxiety: Parcopresis, aka "shy bowel." That last moniker kind of makes it sound cute, but it can be really distressing because it can, in severe cases, make you scared to leave your home out of fear of having to use the restroom.
Toilet anxiety has been found to be associated with social anxiety, per May 2016 research in Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
Social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of being judged or seen in a negative light in social situations, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Related to having a BM in public, people may feel shame and embarrassment as well as be overly worried about sounds and smells related to pooping, researchers say.
This fear may be worse if you have an underlying GI condition like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Seeking treatment for GI conditions, as well as taking care of your mental health by talking to a psychologist or therapist can help you work through and develop useful tools (including exposure therapy) to control your anxiety.
- The University of Arizona: “Why your cellphone has more germs than a toilet”
- Harvard Medical School: “How risky is using a public bathroom during the pandemic?”
- University of Michigan: “Diaphragmatic Breathing for GI Patients”
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy: “Development and validation of the Shy Bladder and Bowel Scale”
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Social Anxiety Disorder”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.