Are Your Eating Habits a Coping Mechanism for Anxiety?
Does this scene sound familiar? You find out some stressful news. You begin to feel anxious and your heart rate speeds up. You start to pace. Your mind is racing and you start to think up worst case scenarios. Now the thoughts are too stressful and you’re getting overwhelmed. You go to the pantry and reach for something that will help calm your nerves. Maybe a big bag of salty chips or chocolate chip cookies. You have a few bites, and instantly you feel more at ease. But then a few minutes pass and you realize the bag is nearly empty.
The Relationship Between Anxiety and Food
Anxiety can manifest in many forms. One that I see quite a bit as a nutritional therapy practitioner is emotional eating. There are two main ways your anxiety might show up in your eating habits: undereating (or forgetting to eat entirely), or overeating to cope with your emotions.
Undereating generally happens when you are experiencing such a state of stress that you don’t notice your own hunger. You are not in tune with your body and you are just focused on dealing with the immediate stressor in front of you. Your adrenaline is spiked from the stress, and so you continue to power through.
When you finally stop to take a breath, you might realize it’s been hours and hours since you really ate. Now, on top of the anxiety and stress, you’re also fatigued and grouchy because you haven’t nourished your body.
On the other end of the spectrum is overeating. When your body is in a stressed state, it sends extra glucose and oxygen to your organs and brain, which can cause you to crave fats and carbs. This is part of the body’s fight or flight response. Remember, this is the response that helps your body prepare to handle a threat—so while it’s important if you’re preparing for battle, it’s not so helpful if you’re at home, anxious about an upcoming performance review at work.
If your stress is causing you to have cravings, then it can feel very comforting to indulge in a big bag of something sweet or salty. Comfort food is called that for a reason! However, what then happens is this food stimulates the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine, your feel-good hormone. And then your brain says, “Hey, that’s nice. I want more of that.” So you give it more. You can see how this can create quite the cycle of bingeing.
Sitting With Our Discomfort
Emotional eating is a common manifestation of anxiety because it provides such instant relief from discomfort. The problem, though, is that relief is temporary—and it also can have devastating consequences for your health.
A healthier strategy is to allow yourself to sit with the discomfort you’re feeling. I know that doesn’t sound appealing, but it’s important. Sitting with discomfort—instead of immediately reacting by trying to push the feelings away—is hard. But when you learn to do it, you understand the stressful situation is temporary. You build up resiliency, and it becomes easier to sit with the discomfort and feel the emotions, without needing to take the edge off with food or any other coping mechanism.
Instead of Eating to Cope, Try This
If you’re struggling with emotional eating, here are some ways to cope with your anxiety in a healthy way:
Get a cold drink of water. The cold water can send a sort of shock to your system, and might be enough to disrupt the craving.
Wait it out. Usually after about 15 minutes, your brain can calm down and you can find a way to handle the situation without succumbing to emotional eating.
Find a distraction. If you’re stressed and feeling the urge to binge eat a tub of ice cream, try to distract yourself with something else instead. Maybe give someone a call, turn on a podcast, or go for a walk.
Tune into your body and listen. If you’re craving something, is it because you haven’t nourished your body well throughout the day? Something as simple as changing how often you are eating can make a big difference.
Did this resonate with you? If you’d like to work 1:1 with an experienced nutritional consultant and therapist, I’d love to help you create a strategy to suit your specific needs. Book a consultation with me here.
The content found on Integrative Counseling and Nutrition Consulting platform is not intended to be a substitute for professional therapeutic advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your psychiatrist, therapist or other qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a mental health condition.