Everybody poops, right? It’s a basic human function, and yet—even now as you read this article—you’re probably feeling compelled to close the tab, hide your screen so no one sees it, or even delete it from your search history.
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But if pooping is something everyone does, why are we so afraid of doing it in public? As a teenager, I was mortified by pooping in public bathrooms. I did everything I could to avoid going No. 2 at school (though that’s probably partially due to my own hangups and partially due to the fact that teenagers are cruel). I’d blush behind the thin metal door of the girls’ bathroom if I couldn’t hold it any longer.
As I got older, my fear of pooping in public followed me everywhere I went. Even as I developed stomach issues and dealt with painful cramps, I still thought it was preferable to using the toilets at work. It took me years to grow comfortable with the concept of using public toilets until, one day, I realized just how ridiculous I was being.
A board-certified cognitive behavioral psychologist at the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California with experience with parcopresis (a.k.a. the inability to defecate when other people are perceived or likely to be around), DePompo reminds us that—while occasionally abstaining isn’t bad—it isn’t worth it to risk, especially since more serious issues can develop.
“If you interfere with [pooping] by holding it in, you can experience constipation, and colon issues, as well a bacteria backing up into your body,” he says.
And if you keep it up, there could be more long-term consequences. “Holding your poop can result in distended bowels and problems with normal stooling in the near future,” says Spencer Nadolsky, D.O.
For certain people, it’s not as simple as avoiding a trip to the loo. Recently, I discovered that there are some folks who will go through great lengths to avoid public poop trips. One individual admitted to a severe poop phobia that even interrupts the workday—and admitted to having waited in a stall for as long as 40 minutes.
So what can you do about it? It’s not always as easy as just making yourself go. Anxiety about bathroom trips can make going difficult, so—even if you have to poop—the inability to relax makes it impossible to finish the task.
DePompo suggests viewing it as a hypothesis: Sure, the worst thing imaginable could happen. Someone could hear you, they could shame you, and/or you could have an accident. But instead of trying to talk yourself out of it, he suggests testing that hypothesis against another, less catastrophic, one.
“Take baby steps to test this out,” DePompo says. “Perhaps start lower on the fear ladder, like a private bathroom where you can lock the door, before moving to a bigger public bathroom.”
Still struggling? Avoidance is common, but most people advocate taking advantage of public toilets when nature calls. You can make it less awkward by carrying around your own Poo-Pourri, playing a game on your phone to distract yourself, or buying a cheap boombox for your office bathroom to drown out any sounds that might make you anxious.
“Develop assertion against the Poop Critic,” DePompo says. “You can start by just going in the stall and not pooing to using frequent flushes, air fresheners, etc. But eventually, you have to let those safety behaviors go.”
Remember that pooping is healthy. If you can’t avoid a public trip to the toilets, take baby steps to move forward toward your goal. Remind yourself that you’ll feel better once it’s over and do what you need to keep yourself distracted. DePompo suggests starting small and to remind yourself that going No. 2 is a normal bodily process, and to look for evidence against the fears holding you captive. (It’s there, promise.)
And hey, if all else fails? Even Beyoncé poops. And if Queen Bey does it, why should the rest of us be embarrassed by it?
Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and public speaker. After graduating from Huntington University with a B.A. in history, she went on to receive a master’s degree in modern British history from the University of East Anglia. In her spare time, she enjoys fangirling, running, and anything related to ice cream. Pluto is still a planet in her heart. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their two dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.