Your question: Why am I anxious when I’m hungry?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Food is one of the basic needs of living beings. You need to eat to store energy in your body to allow you to perform your daily tasks. Therefore, you cannot talk about mental health without talking about nutrition. They are mutually related and one affects the other.

Anxiety is a set of physical and emotional symptoms that appear when the brain perceives a real or imaginary threat and demands a response to it. Anxiety is a process that in turn destabilizes the body, causing a physical and emotional imbalance that generates deep discomfort in the person.

The link between anxiety and hunger is known. One study(1) found a relationship between the state of anxiety and hunger, thus indicating that there is a strong empirical connection between anxiety and food-related health outcomes.

This happens because during periods of hunger blood sugar decreases and generates a feeling of fatigue or tiredness in the person. This feeling makes the person more reactive and irritable, and therefore prone to insistent anxiety and worry that remains even after the person has eaten.

It is quite normal, but extremely annoying, to feel anxious about being hungry. It is important to take into account that the mind and the body are related and therefore, if you neglect one, the other will be affected.

Why do you feel anxious and irritable when you are hungry?

Eating behavior factors associated with anxiety, i.e., what causes you to feel anxious symptoms when you are hungry, are:

Uncontrolled eating

Eating at the wrong time can generate feelings of anxiety and irritability because your brain and stomach do not find a necessary pattern or routine in your eating. This is common in demanding work or academic schedules, where people may go several hours without eating, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner at the wrong time.

Eating anxiety

The feeling of hunger is subjective. You may not be experiencing real hunger because you have recently eaten the amount you need to function properly for the day, but your body and mind give you the feeling that you still have an empty stomach. This happens because some people relieve their symptoms of anxiety and worry about everyday life with food. They eat even if they are not hungry, and going long periods of time without eating increases their anxiety.

What does hunger anxiety feel like?

Experiencing anxiety related to eating behavior causes symptoms such as:

  • Tiredness, fatigue or dizziness.
  • Irritability and excessive sensitivity.
  • Feeling of intense fear or panic.
  • Headache and stomach pain.
  • Muscle tension and tachycardia.
  • Sensation of fainting.
  • Anger or deep sadness.
  • Psychomotor agitation.

What can you do?

Anxiety related to hunger must be addressed on two sides: body and mind. If you control your anxiety but not your eating, the symptoms will continue to appear, if you control your eating but not your anxiety, it will be the same. Therefore, the approach is mutual. If your symptoms persist and worsen, it is necessary to seek professional help. A psychologist and nutritionist will be able to help you identify if you need any extra supplements to help you feel better.

Be strict with your eating schedule

You must make room in your daily life to eat adequate amounts at specific times. Eating at different times every day destabilizes your body and mind, so setting a fixed schedule tailored to your responsibilities is a great help in alleviating the feeling of anxiety associated with hunger.

Eat small portions throughout the day

Eating small portions of fruit throughout the day helps keep your blood sugar regulated and gives you energy to perform daily activities, as well as prevents you from feeling hunger-related anxiety.

Relaxation and breathing

Anxiety destabilizes your body with annoying symptoms that are difficult to control, but through progressive relaxation and slow breathing you can cope with your anxiety episodes and diminish the symptoms. Whether you are alone or in public, relaxation allows you to relieve these symptoms. You should close your eyes and inhale and exhale in 3-second intervals. In the meantime, repeat in your mind key phrases that generate motivation and pride. “You can cope with this situation,” “You have been through this before and have been able to get through it,” “You have the strength to deal with this problem,” to name a few examples.

In my experience…

It is possible that because of the responsibilities of daily life, you may shift your eating schedules, which causes you to feel hungry and eventually, experience anxiety. It is important that you find space in your life for healthy eating, as it is as important as sleep for you to maintain a stable mental health.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel hopeless. We can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads you in the right direction.

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