Your question: Why do I eat when I have anxiety?

My reply:

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

Anxiety affects everyone differently. It is a universal experience, but the ways we experience and cope with it are unique. Although it feels annoying, anxiety is necessary in small doses, as it helps us cope with everyday stresses and life pressures. Anxiety is what makes you run away from a potentially dangerous situation and what gives you energy to prepare for a stressful exam.

However, when anxiety becomes too recurrent and intense, we have a problem. In the midst of desperation, people resort to many things in an attempt to “alleviate” their anxiety, even though these remedies are not actually effective in decreasing anxiety and, in fact, increasing it.

Eating is an extremely common resource that people with anxiety employ in an attempt to alleviate their symptoms. Research has shown(1) that stress and anxiety change eating patterns and the prominence of food consumption, causing people to eat more and faster when they are anxious.

An event in your life generates intense anxiety, so you turn to your favorite snack or food to feel better, and once you are full, you feel guilty, upset with yourself, and possibly more anxious. This is a common pattern, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed for experiencing it.

If you use food to relieve your feelings of anxiety, it is necessary that you learn to identify the causes of your anxiety, and that you modify the habit of eating large amounts of food every time you are anxious, for healthier habits that do not harm your physical and mental health.

While it is not your fault to be going through this situation, if you have the ability to deal with this problem and take control of your life.

Why do you eat when you are anxious?

There are several reasons that explain the pattern of eating when feeling stress or anxiety. Some reasons are biological, others are emotional. In general, these causes show you that there is a studied reason behind the cravings to eat when you feel anxious.


When you experience stress and anxiety, your dopaminergic system in the brain is affected, as well as other regions of the brain related to motivation and reward. This means that your mind makes your body feel like it needs food to compensate for the energy your body expends during periods of stress and anxiety (1).

You may have noticed that it is not precisely vegetables that people seek out when they feel anxious, but foods high in sugar and fat. This is because the body feels the need to recharge energy, activating the dopamine circuits in the brain. This happens even if you are not really hungry.

Emotional regulation

Many people have learned since childhood that food can alleviate their emotional problems. If a child cries, they compensate by giving him a sweet, even if he is not really hungry. These patterns are repeated into adulthood. Food becomes a kind of placebo effect that people resort to when they are anxious or depressed, however, eventually, this only makes them feel worse, as they question their capacity for self-control.

How to avoid eating when you are anxious?

The dangers of overeating and overconsumption of unhealthy foods are well known in physical health, but not so much in mental health. Eating too much too fast when you feel anxious aggravates your anxiety in the long run, as you are not dealing with the initial problem which is the anxiety itself.

Therefore, even if it is difficult, it is time to change your eating habits to improve your quality of life, and deal with anxiety in a healthier and more effective way. Remember that it is always necessary to go to professionals such as psychologists or doctors to receive a more direct and specific support to your needs.

Keep an emotional diary

It is necessary that you learn to identify what are the triggers of your anxiety. It can be work, studies or even people in your family circle. Whatever the case may be, an emotional diary will be very useful to identify them. In it, you will write down the circumstances surrounding the episodes of anxiety you have, indicating what was happening at that time, where you were and who you were with. This will allow you to know in which areas of your life to start making changes.

Eat at regular intervals

Habits that take time are impossible to change overnight. Everything must be gradual, and this is no exception. Instead of eating large amounts of food all at once when you are anxious, eat small portions at intervals of 3 or 4 hours. This will allow you to reduce the amount of food you eat and gradually adapt to not using food as an escape from anxiety.


Physical activity is helpful in coping with anxiety because it allows you to better control your body and mind. In addition, you are taking care of your physical health, which can be affected by unhealthy eating habits. Whether at the gym, practicing a sport or from the comfort of your home, exercising is a very good ally of physical and mental health.

In my experience…

Eating when you feel anxious is completely normal, however, it is a habit that you need to modify. When we are desperate we may believe that the solutions to our problems are easy. The truth is that good things require effort, dedication and patience. Dealing with anxiety is a complex job, which is not solved by simply eating.

Even if it feels like a momentary relief, the feeling of satisfaction will diminish, and your anxiety will return with double the strength. This is a complex process, it’s okay if you get it wrong a few times, it’s part of your learning process. The most valuable thing you can do now, is to take the right step towards your improvement, and commit to your physical and mental health because you have the power to do it.

The fact that you are seeking professional help through this message proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health

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