Anxiety is awful. Anxiety and overeating is even worse.
You feel threatened, apprehensive, constantly on-edge, worried, and possibly even short of breath, dizzy, and like things are far, far outside your control. Naturally, you’ll do all kinds of things to try to stop feeling this way or to soften the experience.
And this is where food comes in.
Research shows that tense or stressful emotions can make you overeat and that this effect is especially true if you typically try to control your eating. You know, like if you try to counter your overeating by going on a diet? You might actually start to wonder if your body and brain are trying to drive you crazy.
You’re not crazy.
And you’re not alone. Here’s how and why your anxiety might be driving your overeating.
What is anxiety?
Basically, it’s the physical and mental experience of feeling worried, apprehensive, and threatened over a long period of time. As with most things ‘mental health’, it exists on a spectrum from adaptive to disruptive – and there’s not a conclusive answer about “what it is” or even “what to do about it”. So, I’m going to give you my professional opinion, but as always, it’s up to you to decide what makes sense for yourself.
In my coaching and counseling practice, I see anxiety most often as a symptom. It’s not because you’re broken, or you aren’t trying hard enough, or because you’re weak. Generally, it’s not the core problem at all but is one symptom of a deeper issue.
For example, if you had a headache because your neighbor was playing loud music all afternoon, you would see your headache as a symptom and the loud music as the cause. Many experiences of anxiety are like this headache.
Anxiety and overeating is your attempt at taking a painkiller.
Why does anxiety make you overeat?
Anxiety feels terrible. It might be scary, overwhelming, painful, and confusing. Understandably, you want to stop feeling like that a fast as possible. One of the first ways you were ever taught to deal with negative feels was through food – and that habit continues, stronger than ever.
Here are some of the ways anxiety makes you overeat:
Food, overeating, and the aftermath or overeating all take your attention away from anxiety. This helps to numb the pain, the thought patterns, or even the physical feelings from anxiety and replaces them with food, temporary pleasure, and feeling too full. A kind of numbing can happen when you overeat, which makes anxiety feel smaller.
If you overeat when anxious and then feel full of guilt and shame, you might be swapping your feelings of anxiety for feelings that are less scary and more ‘under your control’. I put that in quotation marks because it sounds crazy – but when you think about it, your anxiety is coming from things you either can’t control or you don’t know where it’s coming from, whereas feeling terrible for eating too much is at least an identifiable thing you did and could conceivably control. You still feel awful, but it’s not quite so filled with fear and worry.
If you’re not sure what you’re feeling, you just know it’s not good and it’s making you eat a lot, then you may be overeating to avoid connecting with your emotions. This is really common – connecting with, understanding, and coping with emotions isn’t something most of us are taught how to do, and they can feel horribly deep, dark, and scary. It can be much easier to focus on food or food struggles. So, eating can help you avoid both your anxiety and what may be causing your anxiety.
Eating huge amounts of food encourages your body into a relaxation response. To deal with and digest food, you need to be somewhat relaxed, and that sleep, lethargic feeling you get after seriously overeating is the ‘rest and digest’ response kicking in. So, if you’re racing around filled with anxious energy, you may be overeating in an attempt to chill.
Food feels safe. It’s treat or a break from the struggle. In a day filled with anxiety and tension, food feels like a good reward. It might feel like the warmth and comfort you need to get just a little bit of pleasure into your day.
Is eating to cope with anxiety a problem?
Yes and no.
If you’re eating to deal with your anxiety and it works for you – I am definitely not going to tell you to stop.
However, if you feel mentally and physically drained, your anxiety isn’t getting any better, and you’re worried about yourself – you need to know there are other ways of coping. And you can learn them, use them, and feel better.
The problem isn’t you, or food, or even your anxiety – it’s that you don’t know how to heal the root causes or how to consistently use more helpful coping strategies.