You might sense that your system knows exactly when you're just too far from home to run back and use the restroom without some serious hassle. No matter the specifics, you're not alone, and there are a few science-backed reasons you might be experiencing this annoying phenomenon of having the urge to poop when going out.
Where does this sudden urge to poop when going out come from?
This actually happens to a lot of people, and it has to do with your gut, nervous system, and more, says Erin Hendriks, MD, a physician at Salvo Health and functional medicine practitioner. "Usually, some sort of stress is to blame," she says. "Your gut is lined with millions of nerve cells that make up the enteric nervous system. When we are stressed or nervous, the body releases hormones and neurotransmitters that trigger contractions in the gut resulting in the urge to have a bowel movement."
"If you are worried about your day and stressed about different responsibilities, your fight or flight nervous system kicks in and stimulates your gut." —pelvic health expert Julia Connolly, DPT
Additionally, it can also sort of become a self-fulfilling prophecy over time, according to Julia Connolly PT, DPT, an orthopedic and pelvic health expert at Fusion Wellness and Physical Therapy in Los Angeles. "If you are worried about your day and stressed about different responsibilities, rushing to get to work on time, or emotionally distressed about something that occurs at work, your fight or flight nervous system kicks in and stimulates your gut," says Dr. Connolly. This stimulation can essentially kick your intestines and colon into a higher gear of contracting and releasing. This, in turn, can move stool through your system faster—giving you that "I have to poop right now" feeling.
Your daily habits may also be priming your body to let it all out. Basically, pooping at the same time each day is a learned behavior, says Dr. Connolly. "Think about potty training in childhood. Our brains learn how to control our bowels and bladder and may get used to a pattern that is tied to a certain situation or environment. For example, many people report feeling the urge to urinate when they get closer to home or put the key in their front door, even though they didn't have to 'go' just seconds before," she says. So, any time you feel that "this is happening immediately" pressure in your bowels, especially if you feel it regularly, you can thank both your nerves and routine.
Oh, and if grabbing a coffee on your way to work is part of your morning ritual, you may be especially prone to these public poop outings. It's well-known that coffee triggers the gastrocolic reflex that signals to your brain that it's time to go number two. If nixing the coffee for an herbal tea isn't in the cards, it's a good idea to at least take note of the nearest bathroom, just in case you need to make a mad dash.
Does the urge to poop when going out have anything to do with IBS?
Although having to poop immediately after leaving the house doesn't necessarily mean you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)—a common GI condition that can cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation—nerves and anxiety are very closely related to IBS, says Dr. Connolly. "The nervous system is intrinsically tied to gut function. The gut and the brain are woven together through the nervous system, so the state of your brain influences the gut and vice versa," she says.
If someone with IBS has anxiety about work, social situations, or any negative emotion related to leaving the safety of the home, it can exacerbate their IBS symptoms, which can include sudden urges to go to the bathroom, she adds.
3 tips to try if you're feeling the dreaded urge to poop when going out
Both experts recommend practicing calming techniques and mindfulness strategies to curb your stress—which may be triggering your need to go. That being said, Dr. Hendriks says if you really have to poop—you absolutely can and should go. There's no shame in experiencing these symptoms, but the following tips might offer some relief or reassurance the next time you get the urge to go outside the comfort of your own toilet.
1. Deep and slow breathing
Breathing exercises can help calm your nervous system and prevent any further exacerbation of stress in the moment, says Dr. Connelly. It works by stimulating parasympathetic activity through the vagus nerve, triggering a relaxation response in your body. "My favorite is diaphragmatic breathing, but there are others that work as well, such as box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, or even just engaging in a few moments of mindfulness,” says Dr. Hendriks.
2. Try not to rush to the bathroom immediately
"Part of retraining your brain will be to exercise urge suppression (as long as it is feasible for you—but not too long or indefinitely, as that's ill-advised for optimum digestive health, as well. Try to train your bowels with a schedule to obtain regularity of bowel movements. This can be done with a pelvic floor physical therapist, too," says Dr. Connolly.
3. If you can, consult a trusted provider
For some people, a sudden urge to poop can indicate a health issue. That's why Dr. Connolly recommends seeing a provider to troubleshoot your symptoms and assess underlying causes. It's important to talk with a medical professional if your bowel habits have recently changed, or if they are affecting your ability to go about your daily life.
No matter what your situation, remember to be compassionate with yourself. "IBS is common. Having bowel movements is normal, even urgent ones. If you feel like you are the only person who has these symptoms, I can assure you that you are not," says Dr. Hendriks. So, if you need to take a bathroom break, that's OK. "You are human, and all humans poop," she says.
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