Of course you and your train are already running late when the need to pee strikes. I mean, of course. It does always seem like your body needs to make life just this little bit more complicated every single time. So why does being stressed flip the switch in your bladder? Here's what we know.
There's actually more than one type of peeing that's related to stress: There's the immediate, total loss of control over your bladder when you're startled AF. And then there's an increase in the amount of times you have to pee when you're anxious, but you still (thank God) have control over your bladder.
In the first case, you can blame your brain's limbic system, Slate explains. It's this collection of brain structures that connects your fight-or-flight responses to the complex neural circuitry that controls your bladder. In particularly terrifying situations, the messages from the limbic system can become so strong that they override the signals from the bladder control areas, thus forcing you to pee freely. The good news, though, is that this phenomenon seems to be pretty rare, reserved for only the most startling moments of our lives.
The second case — in which you feel like you really, really need to go but are able to hold it until you get to the toilet — isn't well understood, but may be due a similar mechanism, explains Calm Clinic. Maybe you're getting a little freaked out on the way to a first date or an interview for your dream job, but you don't feel like your life is actually in danger. So, rather than peeing once you're truly scared, your body signals that it's time to get rid of this stuff now rather than later.
Another potential explanation is that, in anxious situations, you may also just become more sensitive to every little thing your body is doing, possibly including blinking, breathing, and, yes, telling you it needs to pee. That means that even if your bladder isn't for some reason fuller than normal, you'll be more conscious of the fact that you have to pee a bit. That can make it feel like you have to pee a lot, and that getting to the bathroom should absolutely be priority number one. (In more extreme variations, someone with an anxiety disorder may begin to obsess about those normally automatic bodily processes.)
Other cases could be due to an actual overactive bladder (a.k.a. "nervous bladder"). The bladder is surrounded by a thin layer of muscle, which stretches when the bladder is full. Normally, that's the signal your brain picks up on that says, "We gotta go." But, as Raquel B. Dardik, MD, a gynecologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, told us last year, an overactive bladder sends that signal if the bladder muscle senses even the slightest stretch. And some people find their symptoms are very much tied to their stress levels — even to the point that they only feel them when anxious — possibly because anxiety can cause muscle tension throughout the body.
Then there are the people who find it pretty much impossible to pee when nervous. This condition, paruresis (a.k.a. "shy bladder syndrome"), is thought to be a type of anxiety disorder in which the idea of peeing in public causes extreme stress and, therefore, a rush of adrenaline. According to Medscape, the prevailing theory is that the adrenaline can cause the sphincter between the bladder and urethra to tighten, making it physically difficult to go.
Whether your faucet leaks, goes into overdrive, or just dries up when you're anxious, it's clear that the mind and bladder are intricately connected. And if you're stressed about your nervous number ones, that'll only add to the stress you're already feeling. So it's worth checking in with your doctor or therapist who can direct you to the right type of care for the real Number One in your life.