Do You Eat When You’re Anxious? Try This…

Do you often turn to food when you’re feeling anxious?

There are many reasons why you might do so, such as:

  • Dopamine: Food can be soothing due to the chemical changes it produces in your body.

    The act of eating—especially highly pleasurable foods like chocolate, cheese, cupcakes and chips—releases the feel-good chemical dopamine into your bloodstream.
  • Distraction: Eating can distract you from whatever is troubling you. 

    I have a friend who bakes cookies when she’s anxious. The time it takes to go grocery shopping then make, bake and eat the cookies easily provides two to three hours of distraction.

    Plus, she gets a dopamine hit from not only accomplishing something, but also from the pleasure provided by the cookies’ sight, smell and taste.
  • Conditioning: Perhaps you were taught from a young age to turn to food for comfort.

    You may have been conditioned by a well-meaning parent who gave you cookies and milk to soothe your worries, or by media messages that promised relief in a bowl of ice cream, basket of fries or bottle of wine.

Even though it may not seem like it, turning to food to alleviate your anxiety is actually a form of self-care. You’re simply trying to make yourself feel better—and your strategy often works, albeit temporarily.

Don't Fret, Try This Instead
When you feel anxious, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode.

Your rational brain shuts down and your primitive brain takes over. Your ability to think, reason and consider the long-term consequences of your actions is diminished. You basically go offline.

The fastest, simplest way to come back online is by pausing and taking a few deep breaths.

This will shift your body from the stress response to the relaxation response, the state you need to be in to reactivate your rational brain and make more thoughtful, intentional decisions.

You can take three to four long, slow breaths, or practice a more formal breathing exercise.

I’m a big fan of Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 Breathing Technique. I teach it to all of my clients, who find it extremely helpful with reducing their anxiety and emotional eating.

When Carrot Sticks Aren't Healthier Than Potato Chips

Stressed out and struck by a huge urge to munch, Suzie grabbed a bag of baby carrots instead of her favorite potato chips.

Craving cake after visiting a friend who just got engaged, Jill, who longed to find a romantic partner, drove home and ate a big bowl of plain yogurt sprinkled with chocolate chips instead of driving to the bakery.

Hankering for a snack when bored at work, Tim bought almonds from the vending machine instead of his usual bag of M&Ms.

Well-Intended, Ineffective Strategy
Each of these folks was proud to share with me their “win”—that is, their decision to go for a healthier option when a craving hit.

And yes, I agree. They should feel proud of themselves for making a more thoughtful choice.

Yet, while carrots, yogurt and nuts may be more nutritious than chips, cake and candy, eating food—no matter what it is—to cope with uncomfortable emotions is a well-intended, ultimately ineffective strategy.

Although eating brought them a moment of pleasure, distraction and relief, once they were done, Suzie’s stress persisted, Jill’s sadness and loneliness remained, and Tim was still bored silly.

Learn Another Way
Rather than use food (or booze, pot, shopping, screen time, etc.) to suppress challenging feelings, I teach my clients how to identify and address their emotional hungers. To feel—not feed—their feelings.

When they learn how to understand and meet their true needs, their emotional eating diminishes and their overall wellbeing improves.

Learn more by reading about how I crumbled a mad cookie craving here.