Losing your appetite when you’re anxious is a symptom of anxiety that’s more common than you might think. In episode 260, I received a question from a listener who struggles to eat when experiencing heightened anxiety. In this post, I dive into why this occurs and offer my thoughts on what you can do to help ease the stress and keep your body functioning well.
Hi Robert, I love the show and your books! I’ve been going through an episode of severe anxiety, which has happened several times in my life. I’ve learned ways to cope and improve (your podcast about healthy habits for anxiety is a big part of it!) but one thing I still really struggle with during these periods is eating. My stomach turns into a knot and my appetite goes to zero. I know that if I could get better nutrition I would feel better but I just can’t force myself to eat. I often lose weight rapidly during these periods, which I don’t want. Is this common? I hear more about stress-eating. Any advice or tips? Thanks so much!
This is definitely a tough one. It’s a real thing and I think that a lot of people don’t realize it. I’ve had my own experience with this when going through really stressful periods like comprehensive exams or a breakup where I totally lost a bunch of weight simply by virtue of having no appetite. For one, definitely talk to your doctor about options. There might be ways you can stimulate an appetite, such as CBD or THC products, which many cancer patients use if this is deemed safe for you. There may also be ways that you can incorporate supplements to make sure you are getting adequate nutrition despite having a hard time eating.
Go with the flow
Aside from this, I think acceptance and adjustment are necessary. You may not be able to eat in a way that you normally would and, while that’s not preferable, it is okay. It might be worth it to start working on a little list of foods that are easiest for you to stomach or sound the best to you and the foods that you suddenly have an aversion to when you have an anxious stomach. For instance, you might find the thought of a greasy burger really unappetizing, but you can eat carrots and hummus or sushi. Once you are able to identify some of those foods, make sure you have them on hand and be opportunistic about your eating. It’s fine if you aren’t always able to eat a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can still make an attempt and still set aside those times, but don’t get down on yourself when you can’t eat very much.
Instead, allow yourself to snack whenever you can or whenever it sounds good. During less anxious times, you can be more picky, but calories are calories. You need some sort of fuel, so I encourage you to go with the flow. You can always supplement with vitamins etc if you need to. There are many different types of nutrition shakes that are out there. You may find one that sits well with you to give you that minimal nutrition you need.
Variety can also be your friend here. I know a lot of people that have a hard time eating a lot of one thing. Like a steak or a big bowl of pasta. But they do better with a plate full of many things. Think a snack plate with an apple, some cheese, a couple of pieces of salami, some crackers, and baby carrots. Arbitrary example, but someone in your situation might have an easier time snacking from different things on the plate with taste and textural variety than just eating one type of food.
Take note of your anxiety levels
This is probably a little obvious but consider your overall anxiety level as well. If there are times that are calmer and less anxiety-provoking, that might be a time to catch up on some eating. The link between appetite and anxiety is a little complicated, but at least one part of it is often due to that fight-or-flight type stress reaction. That part of your nervous system slows down non-emergency functions like digestion and it also suppresses appetite because who has time to be hungry when you are running for your life from a predator? There’s a chance that you could be on the lookout for calmer moments in your day to eat. You could also make a point to slow down for meals. Make sure you have adequate time. Do a little relaxation exercise beforehand and then be slow and mindful when it comes to the eating.
And if none of this works, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s a tough thing to cope with, but for the most part you are still going to be okay. Your body doesn’t truly want to starve itself and you may find that a little acceptance goes a long way. Rather than thinking to yourself “why can’t I eat anymore?” you might try thinking “Hmm. I guess I’m not very hungry right now. I’ll try again soon.” Rather than getting too worried about the fact that you haven’t eaten anything, simply recognizing that this is part of it and hoping that you will be hungry soon can help you not increase that stress reaction, which might lead to hunger down the line. Usually, your body will do what it needs to do to catch up.
Obviously, I’m not a medical doctor and I’m not giving you medical advice, so please talk to your doctor about this as well and make sure there isn’t a significant reason to be concerned. Not the most complicated response here, but there really isn’t a magic piece of advice for this one. It’s going to take some trial and error, some going with the flow, and some acceptance. Hopefully, these ideas nudge you in a helpful direction!
You can listen to this on Episode 260 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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