In many outdoor sports, there are moments of intense fear: climbing above bad gear, blowing a turn above a cliff, approaching a Class V rapid, or realizing you’re standing between Mama Grizzly and Baby Grizzly.
A lot of things can happen: You can fall above said bad gear and smash into a ledge. You can fail to recover, take a mandatory, dislocate all kinds of body parts. You can get launched out of a raft or buried under tons of rushing water. You can get mauled by a bear.
But will you shit your pants? This is important. What if you don’t fall, if you stick the jump, if you cruise the rapid, or the bear walks on by after you got a sweet iPhone photo from 20 feet away? Will you have to tell your friends, “Yeah, it was the experience of a lifetime, except I crapped my pants”?
The relationship between fear and bowel control has been studied — not for the purpose of figuring out if you’ll soil yourself on your first skydive or bungee jump — but several experts have looked at it from a variety of angles.
U.K. martial arts expert and author Geoff Thompson writes in his book, Dead Or Alive —The Choice Is Yours: The Definitive Self-Protection Handbook, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of if you do:
Digested food and drink is also seen as non-vital to fight or flight so [it] will be discarded. Working as a doorman in the nightclub, it was not uncommon to see the toilet full of doormen, emptying the bladder when they thought that a fight was going to ‘kick off ‘…It is common and natural. However, it is not socially acceptable in this society to urinate or defecate on the pavement before a confrontation so we have learned to control the instinct. Unfortunately all these natural feelings are now very often seen as signs of cowardice. It’s not cowardice, it’s natural.
In Psychological Effects of Combat, a 2008 paper included in the book Stress of War, Conflict and Disaster, Dave Grossman and Bruce K. Siddle wrote that in surveys of soldiers during World War II, “a quarter of combat veterans admitted that they urinated in their pants in combat, and a quarter admitted that they defecated in their pants in combat.”
In The Fascinating Body: How It Works, by Sheldon Margulies, M.D., Marguiles writes that as a part of fight-or-flight, your sympathetic nervous system slows the digestive process and relaxes the muscles of the bladder to make space for more urine. Which explains why you can go a whole day on a multi-pitch climb without feeling like you have to go #2, but have to go immediately after you’re off the climb (and the danger is over). But, Marguiles writes:
Movement of the gut is controlled by more than the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The wall of the gut has its own complex of nerves called the enteric nervous system, which seems to respond to hormones released from the brain under periods of high anxiety, an emotion critical to being scared shitless.
So, Marguiles writes, anxiety, or fear of the unknown, can lead to digestive issues — but once anxiety exits and rational fear sets in, the sympathetic nervous system takes over. Essentially, you’re more likely to shit your pants as you jump out of a plane and your brain frantically cycles through all the things that could go wrong — as opposed to if/when you realize you can’t get your parachute to open and you’re going to free fall to earth. Then rational fear will set in and more than likely, keeping your pants clean will take a backseat to lots of other functions.
Several lab animal studies have researched the link between fear and bowel activity (many to learn more about things like stress-induced aspects of things like Irritable Bowel Syndrome). In one 1930s study by Calvin S. Hall, rats were placed in a three-foot diameter arena and exposed to bright lights and loud noises, and researchers measured the rats’ defecation and their amount of travel around the arena when scared. Dr. Jeffrey Alan Gray writes of these studies in The Psychology of Fear and Stress that a “general pattern” emerged in a dozen studies: basically the more scared mice and rats are, the more they poop and scurry around. Obviously less-than-desirable behavior in a climbing partner, or a pal you want to count on to dig you out of an avalanche.
Of course there are many issues when trying to interpret lab rat studies in relation to human behavior: The studies focus on chronic fear instead of sudden fear (skydiving, climbing, jumping off cliffs), rats react in different ways psychologically than humans, and perhaps most obviously, rats don’t wear pants, and there are thusly no social implications for a rat who loses bowel control when scared.
Although combat and street fights are arguably quite different than situations encountered in climbing, skiing, mountain biking, and paddling, the fight-or-flight response happens in a wide variety of situations. There are lots of things to be worried about when clipping into your skis, tying into a rope, signing up for a tandem skydive, or putting in above all-time whitewater. Shitting your pants is certainly one of them.