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Anxiety and overeating often go hand-in-hand.
Studies show that overeating is a popular coping mechanism for anxiety, and many other psychiatric disorders.
When we are anxious it is common to crave comfort foods, usually high in sugar, or fat, as a way of temporarily "escaping" our emotions.
So, to stop overeating when you're also struggling with anxiety it is important to work on your emotions, eating habits and anxiety.
You'll need to 1) identify your emotional triggers, comfort foods, and bad eating habits, 2) introduce healthy and balanced diet, and 3) adopt effective techniques for expressing emotions as well as managing anxiety.
I know it must feel difficult right now, but I promise you I know how you feel.
I used to stuff myself with pasta, pizza, or cake the moment my anxiety would go up!
And although, I would feel slightly less anxious while eating, as soon as I was finished, the guilt would start. I'd be then angry with myself and wonder,
Why did I just eat that?!!!!!!
This feeling of guilt would then push my anxiety back up and I was back to square one – feeling super anxious and stressed!
What do most of us do in that moment?
Reach for more unhealthy food!
It sounds crazy, right?
But even though we know how we felt the last time, and how we are going to feel afterward, we eat those bad foods and in excess all over again!
And that’s how a vicious cycle between anxiety and overeating is formed.
If you’re in this situation, I completely understand what you’re going through and I’m here to help.
Read on, to find out how to manage overeating and relieve your anxiety!
Indulging in overeating as a way to cope with anxiety is referred to as emotional eating rather than hunger-related eating.
When eating to deal with your emotions rather than physical needs, one of the main symptoms of anxiety overeating is to compulsively eat more than you need without ever feeling full or satisfied.
Symptoms of chronic overeating, in general, include the following:
Symptoms of Chronic Overeating
Why is Overeating a Common Coping Mechanism for Anxiety?
Overeating is a popular anxiety coping mechanism because it temporarily gives a sense of relief and contentment, both of which are hard to attain when struggling with this mental condition.
Most anxiety sufferers are aware that these good feelings will pass quickly, and will be followed by guilt and frustration caused by overeating, but when you’re struggling with anxiety every second of every single day, it still seems worth it!
There are several theories to explain why we overeat and it’s interesting to consider these, to see which one is most applicable to you and your struggle with overeating and anxiety.
Overeating Gives a Sense of “Escape”
- Anxiety is linked to negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and overeating can give a sense of ‘escape’.
- Rather than dealing with how you feel, overeating can help you to trick the mind to temporarily escape these feelings by focusing your attention on something more concrete such as stimuli from food.
- Based on Escape Theory
Overeating is used to “Regulate” Negative Emotions in the short-term
- When dealing with anxiety, it can be very hard to manage or regulate emotions.
- Overeating can help to relieve negative emotions and anxiety in the short-term, at the expense of more anxiety later on.
- Based on Emotion Regulation Theory
Overeating acts as a “Trade-off” for Anxiety
- According to the trade-off theory, the reason you overeat, even though you’re aware that overeating will make you feel guilty, angry, and frustrated afterward, is because you know it will help you temporarily relieve intense anxiety. And for you dealing with anxiety is clearly a lot worse than dealing with the guilt of overeating.
- So, you are trading-off one bad with feeling with another.
- This theory has received a lot of support because it helps to explain why overeating continues even when we are aware of what is going to come afterward!
Overeating Allows Us to Deny Anxiety
- Another theory is that overeating is used to deny, disconnect, or avoid our thoughts, feelings, sensations, or symptoms when struggling with anxiety.
- Based on Experiential Avoidance Theory
Anxiety and Overeating – Let’s Get Real!
I know that struggling with anxiety, and especially constant anxiety is often too much to cope with.
Also, I completely understand that when anxiety takes over, it’s hard to care about the consequences of the coping mechanisms we use, because we are desperate for anxiety relief even if it is just for a moment.
Anxiety was my worst enemy for too many years and I felt continually defeated by my condition.
It was so bad during one period that I even thought about taking my own life.
Overeating was something I did every day and a few times a day as well.
I can’t tell you whether I used overeating to regulate my negative emotions, escape for a moment, deny my pain, or trade-off one bad feeling for another.
Most probably, it was a combination of all four.
But what I do know is that I was willing to do anything that would help me to calm down for a bit.
The reality, however, is that my overindulging in unhealthy foods didn’t get me anywhere. It just made my anxiety worse, and eventually, overeating and my other short-term anxiety coping mechanisms became ineffective.
As a result, I came to a point where I had no other choice but to learn to manage my anxiety the healthy way!
Going the healthy route is, without a doubt, more difficult, but it’s completely worth it.
It can help you to reduce and manage anxiety, as well as improve your overall health and happiness!
How to Stop Overeating and Relieve Anxiety?
Breaking the cycle of overeating is going to be challenging at first – after all, it is a habit that you’ve most likely been practicing for a while.
But with time and practice, it is possible to stop overeating and effectively reduce and manage your anxiety.
The following section is split into three parts.
The first part is about identifying your bad eating habits, part 2 explains how to introduce new and healthy eating habits, and part 3 is about managing your anxiety and emotions.
– Part 1: Identify Emotional Triggers & Bad Eating Habits
Even though you’re aware that you overeat, you might not be aware of what, how, and when you overeat.
Part 1 is designed to help you identify the details around your overeating so that you know which habits you need to change.
1. Keep a Food Diary
Keeping track of what you eat, how you feel before and after eating, as well, when you eat is going to help you highlight your good and bad eating habits. The best way to do that is to keep a food diary.
- For the next couple of weeks – longer if you wish – keep a food diary and write down everything you eat and the time of day you eat it.
- Makes notes of your emotions before and after eating, which food gives you the most comfort, and what eating habits you’d like to stop.
2. List Your Bad Habits
Go through what you have noted down in your diary and make a list of your bad eating habits.
Common examples include:
- Gulping down your food too quickly
- Boredom eating
- Snacking when not hungry
- Eating while standing up
- Always eating dessert
- Snacking constantly at work
- Skipping breakfast or meals
- Having lunch near the vending machine
- Walking past your favorite doughnuts place after work
3. Identify Your Comfort Foods
Make a list of your comfort foods. These are usually the ones you grab first when feeling overwhelmed.
Common examples include
- and etc.
4. Highlight Your Emotional Triggers
An emotional trigger is any theme” or “topic” that gives you an unpleasant feeling – i.e. money, relationships, work, parents, friends, partner, weight gain, appearance, or anything else.
Think about now what emotional triggers cause you to overeat and make a list.
- Do you worry about your job, and tend to overeat when you think about work or when you’re at work?
- Finances, being single or overweight are other common topics that give rise to an uncomfortable feeling and can cause us to overeat.
- What else?
– Part 2: Introduce Healthy Eating Habits
The following habits will help you replace overeating with healthy habits that are beneficial for your health, happiness, and anxiety levels.
5. Consume Healthy and Balanced Meals
When feeling anxious, you are unlikely to eat nutrient-rich foods such as homemade broccoli soup or carrots sticks.
Instead – and as mentioned above – we tend to grab foods rich in sugar or fat – such as potato chips, fries, cookies, ice-cream, and similar.
But these foods cause sudden spikes and drops in blood sugar – likely to result in more sugar cravings, increasing your chances of overeating!
Also, sudden changes in blood sugar can raise your anxiety levels!
To regulate your blood sugar levels and manage your anxiety, it helps to eat healthy and balanced meals.
Healthy and balanced meals include healthy sources of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats with carbohydrates making up the bulk of the calories.
Examples of healthy sources of:
- Carbohydrates include – whole grains (i.e. brown rice, and millet) and vegetables.
- Proteins include – fatty fish (i.e. salmon, cod), beans, lentils, organic fresh unrefined tofu
- Fats include – extra virgin olive oil, salmon, avocado, almonds, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, coconut oil, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
Whole grains and vegetables are rich in complex carbohydrates, meaning they give a slow release of energy and help to keep blood sugar stable.
Also, these foods are rich in dietary fiber which helps to keep you feeling full and satisfied for longer and in turn reducing your urge to overeat.
Here’s an example of a healthy and balanced dinner:
Salmon served with brown rice, swiss chard, carrots, and zucchini, plus sunflower seeds sprinkled on top or a drizzle of olive oil!
6. Eat Regularly
The longer you go without eating, the more likely you are to overeat later.
Skipping meals causes drops in blood sugar which is likely to raise anxiety levels and trigger food cravings, increasing your risk in overeating later.
Eating regularly can help you limit your urge to stuff yourself in one sitting, and it also helps to manage anxiety throughout the day.
A study in 2011, looked at the effects of meal frequency and found that “increasing meal frequency appears to help decrease hunger and improve appetite control.
Aim to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner and a healthy snack in between.
7. Chew Your Food Properly
Chewing your food properly is essential for your overall health, but it’s also an effective way to stop overeating.
Your saliva contains enzymes that are needed to break down food. If you don’t chew your food enough times, it isn’t going to digest properly once swallowed.
Food that is not chewed properly ends up floating in the intestines which can lead to inflammation and many other problems.
Inflammation is common in people suffering from anxiety.
Also, if you don’t take the time to chew your food, it’s more difficult for your cells to extract nutrients. Lack of nutrients or nutrient deficiencies can trigger food cravings that easily lead to overeating.
Chew your food until it has a fine, pulplike texture. Some experts suggest chewing each bite 30 to 50 times.
8. Avoid Distractions
Working through lunch in front of the computer, snacking on chips while watching television, or being distracted in any other way while eating, is likely to end up in overeating.
The solution is to eat mindfully – studies show that being present at meals can help you effectively manage your calorie intake and aid weight loss.
Being present with each bite of food allows the mind and body to focus on the task at hand, which is eating, chewing, and the initial part of digesting.
To be more mindful at mealtimes:
- Turn off computers, tablets, phones, and televisions
- Sit down at the table
- Avoid eating from containers but instead, always serve your food
- in a bowl or plate to be aware of the portion size
- Eat slowly and chew your food at least 20 times.
- Take a few deep breaths before each meal.
- Put your spoon, knife, and/or fork down between bites.
9. Remove Temptation
It is hard to manage overeating if your cupboards, fridge, or freezer contain unhealthy foods.
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention Studies explain that visiting the kitchen and seeing a favorite snack food is a common trigger of overeating.
Clearing the cupboards from possible temptations is a vital step to ending overeating.
Stock up on healthy snacks instead.
Try a sliced apple with almond butter, hummus and carrot sticks, or any kind of homemade healthy treat.
10. Plan Your Meals
If you’ve not planned ahead and are not prepared when hunger strikes, you’re more likely to make poor food choices and overeat.
Pack home-cooked lunches, keep healthy snacks on hand, and regularly stock your fridge with healthy ingredients so you can prepare dinner at home.
These strategies will help you reduce overeating, and help you save money as well!
11. Drink Herbal Tea
Another effective way to stop overeating is to keep hydrated because most of us confuse hunger with thirst.
Unfortunately, sugary drinks, caffeine, milk, and alcohol can result in more dehydration and should be limited. Thee beverages can also cause spikes in blood sugar levels increasing your chances to overeat.
The best way to hydrate is to drink water.
You can also sip on warm herbal tea throughout the day.
Warm water or herbal tea is soothing and can help to relieve anxiety as well.
Try chamomile tea, it’s tasty, soothing, and awesome for managing anxiety.
- Part 3: Manage Anxiety and Emotions
Since anxiety is both a cause and a consequence of overheating, it’s also important to manage your anxiety and express your emotions in order to successfully overcome overeating.
According to research daily meditation or mindfulness can help to reduce emotional eating in people with persistently high stress and anxiety levels.
Start your day with 5-10-minute guided meditation to help you manage your eating throughout the day.
13. Adopt Effective Anxiety Management Techniques
I'd highly recommend the following:
14. Regularly Express Your Emotions
Final Thoughts on Anxiety and Overeating
Anxiety triggers cravings for unhealthy foods as a way of dealing with emotions. It is easier to eat a cake than to deal with what is really bothering us inside.
To stop overeating when it's emotional eating, we need to identify our emotional triggers as well as bad eating habits.
Then we must introduce healthy eating habits and support these with effective techniques for expressing emotions and managing anxiety.
This is the three-part secret formula to stopping overeating and reliving anxiety.
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