What to do when you’re trying not to poop

Restroom sign with figures in a holding position

Nothing like seeing this sign to know relief is close. Olivier Collet / Unsplash

Contrary to what some might believe, everybody poops (yes, even women), making it one of the most ordinary and universal human experiences. Bowel movements are an essential part of our digestive health, and they’re really not something you should put off. 

But sometimes you just can’t get to a toilet. Maybe you’re in the middle of a job interview, a traffic jam, or your own wedding. Whatever the case, we’ve all endured a situation where we’ve had to grit our teeth, tense up, and hold our poop. And during those excruciating minutes, there’s only one matter more important than the location of the nearest bathroom: How do I make this easier? 

You shouldn’t hold your poop unless you really have to

When it comes to natural functions, it’s best to just listen to your body. This is true for peeing, eating, and sleeping, and it’s true for pooping, too. 

“Occasional stool withholding is not harmful,” says Julie Khlevner, a gastroenterologist at the NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. She notes that although there is no time limit for how long is too long to hold in your poop, doing so frequently can be incredibly unhealthy.

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To hold your poop, you’ll instinctively engage your pelvic floor muscles, which will put pressure on your rectum, pushing your stool up and back into your colon. Your bowels can accommodate this overstaying guest for a little while as you hunt down a toilet, but your large intestine will keep doing what it’s supposed to do: absorbing water from your waste. Eventually, your colon will absorb so much water that your poop will become dry and hard, making it more difficult and painful to release when you finally hit the john. Most of the time, this comes with mild consequences, like stomach pain, bloating, and discomfort, Khlevner says. But pushing too hard can both tear your rectum and cause hemorrhoids. Although the latter can be confused with warts, they are simply swollen veins that result from straining your anal muscles. 

Worse, if you hold your poop constantly or for too long, hard stool can literally block you up and you’ll need medical attention to get unplugged. More dramatic outcomes include distended bowels, which may make it impossible to hold back the brown stuff at all, and a perforated colon, which can spill gastrointestinal bacteria into your abdomen and possibly kill you. 

How to hold your poop more efficiently

The best way to keep your digestive system from catching you by surprise is to train it to relieve itself at convenient times of the day, Khlevner says. You can do this by eating well, exercising daily, and scheduling some toilet time 15 to 20 minutes after a meal, she explains.

But sneak attacks are bound to happen. This is how you deal with those. 

Clench your muscles

When holding your poop is the name of the game, you can never go wrong with some good ol’ muscle clenching. Start with the obvious butt-tightening glute clench, which will tell your brain you’re not ready to relax and let the poop flow freely. 

Bowel movements are all about relaxation and release. That’s why we feel relief when we can finally let go and, er, do our business. Clenching your muscles is the opposite of relaxing, so it can help you bar the back gate a while longer. 

Squeezing your buttcheeks together also engages your pelvic floor muscles. These tissues cradle the organs in your pelvic region, including your bladder, rectum, and uterus, if you have one. Engaging them will also help you keep the poop chute closed by contracting your outermost anal sphincter, which is both the last barrier between your intestinal waste and the outside world and the only sphincter you have some control over

Kegel exercises can help, too. These repetitive actions are commonly associated with women’s health and the prevention of ailments such as uterine prolapse, but men can do them as well. If you’ve never been physically aware of your pelvic floor, try recreating the movement you make when you’re trying to hold your pee. That upwards compression in your pelvis is the result of your pelvic muscles tightening up, and it’s exactly what you’ll need to do if you find yourself in a situation where pooping is not an option. 

Adopt the correct position

There are three positions humans adopt when dropping a deuce: squatting, seated upright at a 90-degree angle, or sitting slightly bent over with our elbows on our knees. 

Squatting is the most efficient position, as it straightens your rectum and makes it easier for poop to go down. (If you can’t squat, using a toilet stool can replicate the effect of squatting while in a seated position.) Sitting down is a less effective posture, but if you live anywhere in the western world, you likely learned to use a pedestal toilet, so this is how you’ve been draining two-pointers most of your life. 

Because these are positions your body sees as signals that you’re ready to take a dump, you absolutely do not want to reenact them if you need to hold it in. Instead, lie on your stomach until the urge subsides. This position is utterly unnatural for pooping and is especially useful if you’re, say, riding in the back of a car on your way to a proper bathroom. 

If you’re on foot in a public place, riding a bus or train, or otherwise in a situation where going prone is not an option, stand up and lightly push your hips forward. This will engage your butt cheeks and help you keep your posterior exit door shut. 

Keep moving—but not so much

Any type of soft, continuous movement, such as walking or shifting your body weight from one foot to the other, will slightly tighten your pelvic floor muscles. 

But keep your movements soft and sporadic. Too much, and you risk triggering gastrointestinal peristalsis, Khlevner says. This is when your bowels repeatedly contract and relax to push waste down your digestive tract, potentially stuffing even more poop going into your rectum.

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This poop version of the pee dance also works as a distraction that signals you’re too busy to relieve yourself. But your brain won’t take that bait for long—you can only control your anal sphincter for a limited time before it opens against your will and, well, you know how that story ends. So if at some point you feel the need to poo is overwhelming, there will be no wiggling around or lying down that can help you.

We sincerely hope you never have to use any of these tips. May you always have a glorious, clean bathroom available to you, with a warm seat, plenty of the softest toilet paper, and the most effective scented candles your nose can handle. But chances are you won’t always be so lucky, so do your Kegels and make sure to poop before you leave home.