Today I'm doing something that I often tell you to do, and that's to be courageous. So today I’m talking about something that I hid from everyone for years - toilet anxiety! And I’m talking, I even hid this fear from my safe people (my mom and my husband and even my therapist) for years. And honestly, I never thought I’d share this stuff with the people I’m closest with, never mind on a podcast episode with thousands of people, but I want to, because I know that there are lots of people who are struggling with toilet anxiety and I know how absolutely debilitating this fear is.
And if you hit play on this episode because you are currently struggling with toilet anxiety, I’m so glad that you’re listening to this because I don’t want you to continue to feel alone or crazy. And I don’t want you to continue to carry a whole ton of shame and embarrassment around with you every day. I don’t want you to feel like you have to keep this fear a secret. I don’t want you to feel like if you tell people that you have this fear, they’re going to think any less of you, or completely abandon you. Instead, I want you to absolutely feel and absolutely know that you aren’t alone. I want you to start letting go of some of the shame and embarrassment you’re carrying around. I want you to share this fear, without believing that the people you love will think any less of you or walk away from you. I want you to feel and know that this fear doesn’t have to continue to control you, and that you can find freedom from it. And right now, I know that you probably feel like this fear is going to be with you for the rest of your life, but it doesn’t have to be. This is absolutely something that you can overcome.
Okay, let’s jump in! So while toilet anxiety can mean a few different things, I’m going to specifically talk about the fear of being too far from a toilet, aka not being able to make it to a bathroom in time. And for some this looks like the fear of not being able to make it to a bathroom in time and peeing their pants, while for others it’s the fear of pooping their pants, or it’s a combination of both! For me, it was mostly the fear of pooping my pants.
I developed this fear because most of my anxiety manifested in my stomach. If I felt anxious, scared, or uncomfortable, I most usually experienced nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. It was like the feeling of having butterflies in my stomach but times a thousand when I felt anxious. Everything would feel really uncomfortable and really unpredictable. And sometimes when I felt this way, my bowels felt extremely urgent. It wasn’t a question of… maybe I have to go to the bathroom, it was a… I have to go to the bathroom right now!
And all of this happened even when I didn’t feel anxious sometimes. Sometimes it was just a thought that would pop into my head that would send me into a spiral. Like… What if you get the urge to go and there isn't a bathroom nearby? And then I’d frantically start looking for bathrooms, even when sometimes I didn’t even actually have to go right then. Or I’d feel a totally natural sensation in my stomach (like my food digesting), and that would send me into a spiral of what-if thoughts and the symptoms. And when the symptoms showed up, I felt like I had absolutely no control of what might happen next.
And there wasn’t one big event, at least not one that I can remember. However I also struggled a lot with driving anxiety, and I’m sure this is how this fear really ramped up for me. Whether it was riding in cars or on public transportation, if I felt anxious and my stomach even felt the slightest bit off, it was game over. I would inevitably work myself up so much that I’d convince myself that my biggest fear was going to happen… I wouldn’t be able to escape and get to a bathroom, and I’d poop my pants. Likely in front of people.
And like for many others, this fear began to rear its head in all aspects of my life. It most often always popped up in places and in situations that I felt trapped in, places and situations that didn’t have “easy” outs where I could make it to a bathroom quickly, or places where I didn’t know where the bathrooms were, and especially places where bathrooms weren’t existent. For example, walking in nature or around cities was hard, being on trains, buses, boats and planes was hard, especially with other people present, being at work, especially in meetings, going into stores, going on dates, going on trips, and the list goes on and on.
But then it began popping up even when bathrooms were nearby, and even in places and situations that I had been in many times before. I struggled with being in other people’s houses. I struggled with traveling, especially if the hotel room or Airbnb only had one bathroom, cause ya know, what if somebody else was in the bathroom when I had to go? So for a long time, home was the only place that this fear didn’t pop up.
And when I would do things outside of my home, I began changing my actions and my behaviors in an attempt to control this fear. I began going to the bathroom multiple times before leaving the house, even when I didn’t even have to go. I began restricting food and water in an attempt to make it so that I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. And with anywhere and everywhere I went, I always made sure to know where bathrooms were just in case. And when we traveled, I made sure that there were multiple bathrooms available wherever we stayed. And I always opted to be the driver, or to go places alone, so that I had more control just in case my biggest fear finally happened.
This fear made me feel like I didn’t have control over my own body, but I clung to control for all the just in cases. And yeah… you’re likely wondering… So did your biggest fear ever happen? And nope! My biggest fear never even happened. I worried about pooping my pants every single day for years but it never happened. It was all so incredibly draining, frustrating, and maddening.
And in an effort to get answers, because I thought, there’s no way this can just be anxiety… I got colonoscopies, and EGD’s, and I tried making so many changes to my diet. But all of the testing and changes never led anywhere. I continued to struggle with the thoughts, the symptoms, and the fears.
And then in a therapy session, I remember telling myself… Shannon, you’ve got to talk about it. You can’t hold this in anymore. What has holding this all in done for you? So I looked at my therapist and I told her my biggest fear… in a really roundabout way because you know, I’m human and even though I knew I had to share it, I still didn’t want to. And I remember her reaction being nothing that I had constructed in my head. Go figure! She was quiet and gentle. She validated my fears and experiences (which is largely what I needed). But I sat there and thought… Lady, I just told you this crazy fear that I’ve been holding onto for years and this is your response?! I don’t know what I expected at that moment, but she clearly hadn’t met my expectations.
And after a little bit of discussing it with her, she said… Shannon, have you considered telling Adam what you just shared with me? And yeah, you can imagine what was going through my brain. I felt like saying… Okay, ARE YOU CRAZY? You’re crazy! I just told you, a complete stranger and that was really freaking hard, what makes you think I’m going to tell my boyfriend? But I knew she was right. I knew that I couldn’t keep holding onto this fear. I had held onto it for far too long already, and the weight of it was literally destroying me. I needed to let go of some of the power it held over me.
So a few nights later, I sat Adam down on the couch and I said, I need to tell you something. And yes, I again told him in a very roundabout way, too, but his response was so different from my therapists. He looked at me and he said, “Oh, I’ve definitely pooped my pants in the car before.” Yeah, you can imagine my reaction. My mind was blown. My mind was blown because 1) My biggest fear had happened to Adam. 2) He told me that my biggest fear had happened to him very matter-of-factly. 3) He wasn’t at all phased by anything I shared with him.
We had a pretty good laugh and I remember walking away from the conversation feeling a whole lot lighter. I remember feeling like… Maybe there’s nothing so incredibly wrong with me after all. Maybe this fear doesn’t have to have such a tight grip on me.
So, here’s the part where I share some really helpful insights and tips with you, because I don’t want you to continue to struggle with this fear because I truly believe that you don’t have to.
But before I do, I want to let you know that I actually taught a live masterclass on toilet anxiety, and it's called - Freedom From Toilet Anxiety! So if you're struggling with toilet anxiety and you're ready to say goodbye to the fear of not making it to a bathroom in time, head here and sign up and get all of the insights, tips, and tools that will help you to overcome the what-ifs, the symptoms, and the fears! Okay, now let's dive into some helpful tips that you can implement today!
01. You are allowed to be human and have irrational fears. I always like to start with this one because I think so often we hold ourselves to this incredibly high, unreasonable standard. Like, we can’t have fears, and god forbid they are irrational or just plain silly. Guess what? We all have them! And we do because we’re human.
I remember for years thinking… Nobody else struggles with this fear. I’m so crazy! What’s wrong with me? And when I first shared this fear on my platform, I got hundreds of responses from people saying… Wow, I can’t believe our stories are so similar. I struggle with this! And even now being recovered, those messages made me cry because I thought for so long that nobody else carried around the fears that I did. I thought that I was so different. Turns out, I’m just human like everybody else.
So often throughout life we beat ourselves up for just being human, and doing so only makes our journey that much harder. So please, let yourself be human and start practicing being more gentle with yourself. It’s okay that you struggle with this fear right now. You aren’t crazy, or weird, or broken. You’re just human, and your relationship with anxiety needs a little fixing, and that can be fixed! But you don’t need the fixing. And this fear says nothing about you or who you are. You can worry about peeing or pooping yourself and still be a beautiful human being who deserves all of the amazing things.
I promise you this, the more you give yourself permission to just be human and to have irrational fears, the less power your fears will have over you.
02. Courage and vulnerability fights fear. I can’t emphasize this one enough, and I wish it’s something somebody would have shared with me back when I was struggling. Courage and vulnerability fights fear. Being courageous and speaking your fears out loud… Being vulnerable and letting people see you, fears and all… This is the stuff that helps to fight fear.
When Adam and I were talking about my fear, I remember him saying to me… I don’t think it’s weird, and I think it makes sense how you developed this fear. And those words made me ball my freaking eyes out. Because it was the first time that I realized that yes, it did make total sense how I had developed this fear. And it wasn’t so crazy. I wasn’t so crazy. And the fact that somebody else could see that and share that with me, and I wouldn’t have gotten that had I not shared it… Amazing, right? Adam validated my fear and he did it in such a simple way. He was letting me be human when I wasn’t letting myself be human.
Right now, I want you to think of somebody you love. What if they told you that they had a fear of peeing or pooping their pants? What would your response to them be? Now work on having that same response with yourself. It’s so freaking powerful.
And act with courage and allow yourself to be vulnerable. These things will help you to do so many amazing things in life.
03. It CAN be “just” anxiety. This is a really important truth to recognize, because we’re often convinced that it’s something more than anxiety, right? I used to think this all the time! There’s no way all of these symptoms are just anxiety… Maybe there’s something wrong with my stomach… Maybe I have IBS, or Crohn's, or something else! But the truth was, I had so much stress in my life which translated into anxiety. And I unknowingly and knowingly did lots of things that led to the anxiety that I was experiencing. So instead of getting all the tests, making all the changes, and looking for solutions, I wish I would have just taken a step back and acknowledged that my mind and body were connected, and all around I wasn’t taking the healthiest of actions that would support my mind and body.
It’s so important to recognize that your mind and body are connected, and if your mind is super overloaded, overwhelmed, and your body is constantly running on stress hormones, all of the sensations and symptoms you’re experiencing can most definitely be “just” anxiety. So this leads nicely into the next tip!
04. There isn’t one fix or solution to get rid of this fear. So, people often come to me and say, Shannon, how do I get rid of this fear of peeing or pooping my pants? And I wish it were as simple as me saying, do this and you’ll be over it! But it’s not. There isn’t one fix or solution. You can try all of the supplements, medications, methods that you want to, but I truly believe that the magic lies in changing your relationship with anxiety and taking a serious look at your actions and behaviors.
I know, because I was constantly looking for ways to fix my stomach issues, but a lot of my stomach issues were being caused by things that I actually had control of. For example… The amount of stress on my plate, my response to my anxious thoughts, the symptoms, panic, and fears, my actions and behaviors in anxious moments, what I was putting into my body, whether or not I was getting enough sleep, and the list goes on and on.
I truly believe that you can’t fix the toilet anxiety phobia if your response to your thoughts, the symptoms, panic, and fear is unhealthy. And you can’t fix the toilet anxiety phobia if you aren’t making healthy decisions. You can’t fix the toilet anxiety phobia if you’re trying to force yourself to be free of it. And my friend Hannah Aylward says something that I really like and it’s that "you can’t heal your gut if you’re constantly running on stress hormones."
05. Trying to control it will only heighten the fear. This was a really hard lesson for me but such an important one. And it’s that in all the ways that I sought out “safety” and control, it only heightened and reinforced my fear and the anxiety that I was experiencing. And what I mean by this… All the checking for bathrooms, and going to the bathroom multiple times, and not listening to my bodily cues, and restricting food, and not going places or doing things unless a bathroom was nearby, and not riding as a passenger, all of these things only heightened and reinforced the fear and the anxiety.
For you, maybe it looks like taking a laxative, or bringing an extra pair of clothes with you just in case, or bringing pads or diapers with you, or simply not going anywhere or doing anything.
I know it’s hard, but you have to be very mindful of your actions and behaviors because they’re contributing to your fear more than you think. These things that you think are keeping you safe and preventing this fear from actually happening, are only keeping you stuck in this cycle of fear. Remember how we talked about courage being a good fighter of fear? Use it. Be courageous and start pushing back in healthy ways on some of these unhealthy actions and behaviors. And yes, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be so incredibly worth it.
Alright, I hope that everything that I’ve shared with you today has been helpful to you. And I really, really want you to hear this. You won’t struggle with this fear forever. I know that right now it might feel that way, but this is something that you can absolutely overcome. Years ago, I said goodbye to this fear. It no longer haunts me, or controls me, or limits me. And I know that this might be hard to believe because trust me, I thought that I’d never be where I am today, but it is absolutely possible.
Until next time, keep taking healthy action!
Freedom From Toilet Anxiety masterclass: Learn simple and practical tips and tools that will allow you to start saying ‘yes' to things, whether or not a bathroom is nearby!