What Is Paruresis?

Paruresis is the fear of using public toilets.

 Getty / Neil Beckerman

Paruresis is the fear of public toilets without any medical cause. Paruresis is also known as urophobia, shy kidney, shy bladder, or bashful bladder syndrome (BBS). Paruresis is experienced by women and men of all ages and when severe and untreated can lead to medical complications. 

Paruresis is considered to be a social phobia. In general, if you live with paruresis, you fear negative evaluation by others related to using public toilets. If this fear is severe and limits your life, it may be diagnosed as social anxiety disorder (SAD).

If you live with a medical condition that prevents you from being able to urinate, you would not be diagnosed as having paruresis.

Causes of Paruresis

Just as with social anxiety disorder, it is unlikely that there is one cause underlying paruresis. At the same time, there are some experiences that seem to be present for some people with the condition:

  • You may have experienced childhood bullying or had parents who were overly critical.
  • You may have experienced a traumatic episode in which you were not able to urinate when you were supposed to—for example, your doctor or some other professional might have asked you to provide a urine sample.

Common Triggers

If you live with paruresis, there are probably some triggers that make it more difficult for you to use a public toilet. Some examples of these situations include the following:

  • the restroom you need to use is very busy
  • the toilet stall lacks proper partitions for privacy
  • you are feeling particularly anxious, fearful, or pressed for time when trying to use the toilet
  • someone is waiting for you while you use the toilet
  • you have the perception that others are listening while you use the toilet

Effects on Daily Life

Paruresis can cause difficulty with travel, social obligations, and professional commitments. If you are constantly concerned about using public toilets, it can leave you feeling out of control and needing to develop strategies to cope.

For example, you may find yourself carefully structuring your day so as to avoid using public toilets. You might drink little so that you don't have as much need to urinate. You might also urinate frequently while at home so that you don't have to once you leave the house. Some people also run the tap or flush so that other people cannot hear when they use the toilet.

While it may feel helpful to have these coping strategies, in the long term they serve to reinforce the idea that you should fear using the toilet or that your anxiety is warranted.

Severity of Paruresis

For some people, the fear involved in paruresis extends beyond public toilets to using those of friends or family, or even the one in your own home if there are visitors.

The impact of paruresis can also range from mild to severe. If you have a mild problem, you are probably unable to urinate in certain circumstances but capable in others. If you have a more severe problem, you might only be able to use the toilet in your own home and when nobody else is visiting.

What's more, paruresis is generally a progressive problem, with fear increasing and generalizing over time to more and more locations. This means that unless you do something to manage your fear, it will get worse instead of better, placing ever more limits on your life.

Treatment of Paruresis

The most common form of treatment for paruresis is graduated exposure therapy. Other treatments include cognitive therapy and anti-anxiety medications. Although exposure therapy can be very effective, it is most useful if paruresis is a stand-alone problem and not part of a larger issue with social anxiety.

If you live with a number of social fears, treatment should address problems with self-esteem, self-confidence, and beliefs about your abilities.

In addition, before you begin any psychological treatment for paruresis, physical causes should be ruled out by a medical professional.

A Word From Verywell

Although paruresis can be an embarrassing problem to deal with, through treatment, it is possible to learn to manage your anxiety so that it does not interfere with life on a daily basis. If you or someone you know is living with a fear of using public toilets, speak to your doctor about a referral to a mental health professional.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources