Living in the age of anxiety — and of #TalkingAboutIt — I’ve become pretty open with myself and others about experiencing anxiety.
I talk to friends about the way my breath gets shallow when I’m about to present in a meeting, my shoulder tenses when I’m working on a tight deadline, or my heartbeat picks up speed before a doctor’s appointment.
While I used to blame some of these experiences on asthma, sports injuries, or my perpetual lateness to appointments (I’m literally running into the doctors’ office), these are now more clearly connected to my fears.
After I met my boyfriend and settled into a stable relationship that I thought was stress-free, I started experiencing a new manifestation of anxiety.
I cannot poop within 1,000 feet of my partner. My gut freezes up.
It’s like my body has internalized that first month of dating when you try to avoid burping or farting in front of your crush. Except I’m 4 years into this relationship.
People love to say that awareness is the first step toward recovery, or at least change, but I was highly aware of the issue before and during a month-long trip through Asia. And my behavior remained, well, unusual and unsustainable.
Almost every day of the trip, I’d wake up 2 hours before my boyfriend to kick off the day with little platitudes about my odd morning behavior. I’m an early bird, he sleeps in, I told myself. Even on vacation I love working out first thing in the morning and drinking copious amounts of mediocre coffee over a good book. Dandelion digestive tea is completely bearable, I repeated, wincing as I swallowed every bitter sip.
Who cared if I would slip into the staff bathrooms and get confused looks if I crossed paths with an employee on the way in.
So you see, I was managing the situation (sort of) by managing the symptoms. Then I moved in with my boyfriend.
Living in the same tiny San Francisco apartment together was easy, exciting as we navigated through things like who did the dishes to who paid for what. We relaxed, got into a flow — and my intestine continued to tighten up.
I felt like I was going to be doomed with pooping anxiety forever. And I thought about the constipation curse. A lot.
For the first time in my life, I even talked about going to the bathroom with my partner, hoping that putting it out into the open would take whatever hidden shame away. Nope.
“There’s a normal and completely healthy sense of anxiety around the ‘less savory’ aspects of everyday life. This includes going to the bathroom and, for example, popping a zit,” says Katherine Schafler, psychotherapist.
She tells me you don’t actually need to share private things — different than shame-causing secrets — with your partner. She also affirms it isn’t unhealthy to feel a bit anxious about things like going #2 around your partner.
A quick scan of the internet would tell you otherwise though. People have written that their inability to go #2 or even to talk about it with their (usually ex) S.O. as a relationship red flag. But as my experience argues, it’s not the case.
And Schafler confirms: “It’s not an ‘intimacy win’ to get to a place where you’re comfortable going to the bathroom around your partner,” she tells me. “It’s 100 percent okay to not want your significant other to see (or smell) you engaging in these activities.”
I love to psychoanalyze myself, but I can’t distill my pooping anxiety into an obvious connection between my brain and body, some hidden fear, or mortifying childhood memory.
In fact, “You cannot have a healthy relationship without boundaries,” Schafler says, explaining that comfort levels are different for everyone.
While getting to the root of the issue has been impossible for me, getting better hasn’t.
If constipation might be getting in the way of fully enjoying your life with your partner. Here are a few things that might help you go to the bathroom regularly again.
1. Set aside some time alone
Schafler recommends figuring out a time to use the bathroom without feeling rushed. For me, this means getting up much earlier than my boyfriend to give my body plenty of time to do its thing.
2. Move your body and put your mind at ease
It’s important to choose activities you like, whether or not they help. I drink coffee or tea (the kind that tastes good) and take my dog for a walk as I listen to my favorite podcast.
I’m not only moving my body bilaterally, which helps my gut start moving, but I’m distracting my mind so that I’m not closely tracking the minutes that have passed without having gone #2.
3. Make toilet time more comfortable
Schafler points out that some products, like poo-pouri toilet spray, might make you feel more comfortable about going to the bathroom. Other people have told me the noise of the bathroom fan or running water makes them feel more at ease.
4. Consider therapy
“If you’re not going to the bathroom all day long and experiencing constipation or other adverse health consequences as a result, then I’d say the anxiety is disrupting your daily functioning and would recommend talking to a professional therapist about it,” Schafler says.
5. Get some headspace
Ultimately, I’ve gotten so much better. And my slow return to regular also began after I read about people with insomnia. They tend to anticipate sleep issues before bedtime to the point they worry themselves into staying awake. I wondered if I was doing the same, and made a conscious decision to stop actively managing it. So that I could move on with enjoying my life.
And focusing on the best parts of my day that are happening — not the issues that might arise — has made all the difference — for my mind and my gut.
Whitney Akers is a writer and traveler who always overpacks all the wrong things. She helps health professionals connect with the people who need them most at Whitney Akers.