We Need to Talk About Zoom Poops
Sammy Nickalls, a writer based in Pennsylvania, often has to poop immediately before a Zoom call. “I always end up thinking to myself, ‘Oh God, do I have time to take care of this before the call?’ and ‘WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING?’”
Nickalls is experiencing what for most of us is a new phenomenon: the dreaded Zoom poop. As the pandemic forced more people to transition from an office setting to their new work-from-home life, crucial bathroom routines were suddenly upended. Folks who used to regularly poop at, say, 7:00 after a morning run but before their commute to work no longer had that built-in structure around which they could build their bathroom habits. They did, however, face a new stressor: the dreaded video call.
Across the internet, memes and anecdotes abound in which people agonize about their new Zoom poops, in which they feel the sudden urge to use the restroom shortly before or during a Zoom call. This can be an aggravating experience, but it can also be a painful one: Holding it in is uncomfortable and even distressing, especially for people with chronic digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
I wanted to know what it was about Zoom, specifically, that seemed to instigate this unexpected need to go. As someone with IBS, working from home is a huge relief. Having to run to the cramped women’s restroom and sit on the uncomfortable toilet for 10-plus minutes was embarrassing and anxiety-inducing, so when I left my office job and started working from home, I was instantly more comfortable, and my stomach pains and bathroom anxiety evaporated. Yet many people have the opposite reaction when working from home, and communicating via video call stimulates their bowels more than sitting in an uncomfortable conference room might.
“In a working environment, I trained myself to just do it at 9 a.m. or 6 p.m. on the dot either before I left or got home. If for any reason I had to deviate from that, I was screwed,” says Noreen, who works for a game studio in Toronto and requested that only her first name be used so that her current or future potential employers don’t stumble upon her poop stories. She’s had to ask colleagues to move Zoom meetings so she could run to the bathroom. “Now my body’s schedule seems to be less predictable.”
As anyone who’s ever gone on vacation is likely aware, our bowels are huge fans of consistent routines. When that routine gets tossed for unpredictable day-to-day activities, your body gets confused. This can result in constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, or, as in Noreen’s case, an irregular and unpredictable need to poop. And if you transition your early morning, pre-commute workout to one you fit in during an irregular afternoon lull at work before your next meeting, it can seem as if it’s the Zoom meeting itself that’s instigating the urge, when it was, in fact, the workout.
Gwen, a graduate student in Massachusetts who requested only her first name be used because she’s job hunting, frequently experiences the need to poop both before and during Zoom meetings. “Before-Zoom poops are nervous poops,” she says. “Mid-Zoom poops for me are caused by the fact that I sit all curled up on my chair during Zooms—aka a squatting position. I’m convinced that squatting for more than seven minutes biologically gets things moving because it’s how humans used to poop before toilets.” Gwen only sits this way during Zooms, she says, because she doesn’t need to actively type.
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Squatting can absolutely help people poop more easily. “Toilet angles aren’t well aligned with how the anus and rectum [are] designed to be positioned when it’s time to have a bowel movement,” Sophie Balzora, MD, a clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine, told Wirecutter. A small 2019 study found that using a footstool while pooping helped healthy participants (that is, people without digestive disorders) poop more quickly, easily, and completely than those who pooped while sitting on the toilet in the traditional manner. This was because leaning forward with the knees elevated puts pressure on the rectum and relaxes the anus, which helps facilitate bowel elimination (pooping). So conceivably, if during Zoom meetings you’re sitting in such a way that you are putting pressure on your rectum and relaxing your anus, that could provoke the urge to go to the bathroom.
But it could also just be anxiety.
Holley, an Ontario-based student who requested that only her first name be used so her bathroom habits don’t turn up in a Google search, says she frequently got the Zoom poops while working at a former job. “I had thought it was my anxiety manifesting in stomach trouble. All this was due to a bad work situation, which changed for the worse during Covid,” she says. Holley wouldn’t move or cancel the meetings, but it was exhausting, with the Zoom poops acting as a symptom of greater work unhappiness due to her boss’s unkindness and rudeness. “It was a bit hard to get used to not knowing what to expect on the other side of the screen until the meeting got going,” Holley says. She has since quit the job, and her stomach problems have lessened.
Nickalls had a similar experience with her Zoom poops, which was particularly bad when she had Zoom meetings with her former boss. “Like clockwork, I would have to poop every time I met with her, probably because of my fear of authority,” she says. “I’m positive it’s anxiety poops.”
Vincent Ho, PhD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, says video calls can be particularly anxiety-inducing and, thus, poop-stimulating. On Zoom, “you can see your own face, and that can be unnerving, as we don’t usually look at a mirror while talking to other people. This situation might exacerbate one’s feelings of self-consciousness and anxiety,” Ho says. Similarly, “many of my academic colleagues have commented on the inability to ‘scan the lecture theater’ as we would do in real life to see if students are engaged. It becomes rather awkward when students turn off their videos at the start of your lecture and you end up seeing a screen of black boxes with names but no faces.”
These less than ideal situations cause anxiety and stress, which in turn cause a fight-or-flight response. “During stress, our digestion and the movements in our stomach and small intestines slow down, but paradoxically the large bowel (or colon) movement increases,” Ho says. The pelvic nerve then conveys signals from the brain to the walls in the rectum, which triggers increased rectal activity. Hence the need to poop.
But many people might find themselves more comfortable at home than in an office setting, which makes it easier to poop whenever the body is ready. “A stressed individual who desperately wants to go to the toilet will need to consciously relax the external anal sphincter — but this may not be possible, particularly in the work setting. Therefore, unless they make a timely escape to the toilet, the external anal sphincter is kept in its usual contracted state,” Ho says. In other words, maybe you’re too uptight at the office to poop. But in the comfort of the home, there’s less of a need to hold it in, “unencumbered by the social restrictions that might be present in the usual physical workplace setting.”
If you do feel the urge to poop before or during a Zoom, it’s best for your digestive health if you cancel or move the meeting to take care of business, according to Sameer Islam, MD, a practicing gastroenterologist in Lubbock, Texas. “This is very important. No matter when you go, if you feel the urge to go, you really need to go,” he says. “If you hold that in, and you don’t use the restroom, your body gets the idea that, okay, if I feel the urge to go, I can’t go. And so I’m not going to feel the urge to go anymore.” This can lead to gut pain, constipation, and hemorrhoids, Islam says. This might be kind of awkward, but, he says, you’re likely not alone: The stress of the pandemic means Islam and other gastroenterologists he knows are seeing a lot of people with sudden digestive issues.
Personally, I think we should all take this opportunity to be more open about our digestive needs with our friends, family, and co-workers. Having IBS in an office setting is basically a nightmare — I speak from experience — and it’s unhealthy to sit through long meetings, video or otherwise, when you desperately need to go. On the plus side, though, it’s probably a lot easier to open up to a colleague about your gut issues via text than sitting across from them in their office. We should allow Zoom poops to teach us a valuable lesson: When nature calls, we answer.