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Why Do Nerves Give Me the Shits?

This evolutionary body reaction is a little less useful these days.
Marko Milanovic / Stocksy

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.


The Scenario: Your friend is pacing toward the bathroom briskly, ass cheeks clenched. She pushes the stall door open and slams the bolt-lock behind her, breathless. It's ten minutes before a big work presentation and beads of sweat are forming on her forehead. And elsewhere. Nerves sometimes intensify the urge to pee incessantly like a puppy. But this shit is different. Your friend feels like she's going to let loose from all orifices, her stomach tightening as she wonders if it would be weird to use the waste basket as a vom bucket while on the john.

It all began with a clawing stomachache and nausea, about an hour ago as she was prepping at her desk. Your poor friend cry-laughs a little at the violations her body commits when she's nervous.

The Worst That Could Happen: Your friend may have finally cracked under the stress and is now a poop-shooting fountain of nerves. This sudden need to expel everything is sometimes caused by stress-induced irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. This thing isn't a life-threatening cancer, but it it is a rollercoaster of a chronic condition that includes stomach aches, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and gas that mimics a rotting skunk carcass whose last meal was deviled eggs.

It occurs when the brain and the gut don't communicate as they should, causing abnormal colon contractions. And while it's tricky to diagnose (so many disorders come with an upset stomach), it affects around 11 percent of the population, and stress is a common trigger in most situations.


Detroit-based gastroenterologist and talk show host Partha Nandi says that, because IBS involves both the brain and the gut, it's not primarily a psychological issue but rather the effect of the nerves and muscles of the GI system. When the nervous system of your gut is not in sync, you can have symptoms of IBS. But Courtney Houchen, a professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, explains that anxiety is a factor, which is why your friend hightails it to the toilet when stressed or feeling threatened in some way.

"When you [feel] under attack, your blood flow shifts from the intestines and non-essential organs to your heart, lungs, and muscles so you can run faster. With that [extra] blood flow you can escape." Regarding the cramping, he adds, "Swallowed air goes into the GI track, but because the enervation causes extra air to go in the organs, the inability to clear the air and or food from the intestinal track causes stomach pains."

What's Probably Happening: Even if it's not IBS-related, your body is still in fight or flight mode. It's likely that this is just a more natural, less severe one. Our bodies are trained to survive by any means necessary. Stimulating the adrenal glands triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and noradrenaline into our bloodstream, resulting in enhanced physiological functioning to be able to deal with the threat. The stress manifests itself in different ways in different people. Some people get sweaty palms, and armpits, and others (like my friend) need to run to the bathroom.


According to Robert Udewitz, clinical psychologist and director of Behavior Therapy of New York, this mechanism is a remnant from our old reptilian brain. "Our rationale self conflicts between our instinctive selves," Udewitz says. He confirms the myth that we empty our bowels to run faster. If we were still in the prehistoric era, hastily escaping from stampeding mammoths, this mechanism would prompt us to defecate, vomit, and piss so we could shed literally everything weighing us down and and run at Usain Bolt-like speeds.

But since the types of stress we face have been downgraded to things like the subway being delayed for 20 minutes before a job interview, this mechanism renders itself useless.

What To Do: Because the body can recover pretty quickly from the burst of adrenaline and uncontrollable need to "let go," your friend most likely relieved herself in the restroom and was able to continue on with her meeting and day like nothing ever happened. Luckily for her she was able to get through her sickness in time for the meeting, but what about next time?

Nandi suggests avoiding fatty, spicy foods and carbonated beverages prior to important engagements as they can trigger an upset stomach when combined with stress. Foods that can help ease the tummy beforehand are lean proteins, skinless fruits, and a moderate amount of bread.

Breathing techniques and postures used in yoga can also help detach from the perceived trauma of the situation, helping calm your friend's nerves. Just don't let her get into child's pose; her nervous dumps don't need any physical encouragement.

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