Why Do We Eat to Relieve Anxiety?
Americans love to eat. We have foods to celebrate, comfort foods, and even foods for specific events like popcorn at the movies, cake at birthdays, and is there really anyone among us who doesn’t feel pizza just tastes better during our favorite TV shows? Considering our culture of food, is it really a surprise to discover we are eating to relieve anxiety? Have you ever stopped and wondered why we eat to relieve anxiety?
There is a popular meme running around social media that says,
Food is the most abused anxiety drug. Exercise is the most underutilized antidepressant.
There is wisdom in those words, but reality isn’t quite that simple.
Eating During an Anxiety Attack is Simple
Anxiety can be very debilitating and even frightening. Eating during an anxiety attack is simple, almost automatic. As I’ve spoken about in this blog before, when I have a panic attack, salty snacks like pretzels help calm me down. This isn’t because pretzels have a medicinal property, but because the ritual, the habit, calms me down. The sensation of eating helps moves my focus away from the anxiety and onto the pretzels.
I didn’t start out with pretzels, however. I started with any food I could get my hands on. I ballooned to over 550 pounds because binge eating relieved anxiety. Again, the food wasn’t magical; it was a distraction. Many people replace food with drugs, alcohol, or self-harm. These things “work” because of the distraction. Ultimately, we are better served to pick a healthier distraction. In my case, I picked pretzels. I am still relying on food, which doesn’t make it the best choice, but it is the best I have been able to manage – and that is okay.
Replacing Anxiety Distractions Like Eating is Difficult
Given the physical and mental sensations that may occur during even a mild anxiety or panic attack, it really isn’t reasonable to suggest that someone “go for a run.” I will acknowledge the benefits of exercise, a fact that shouldn’t be in in debate, but what I think is being missed is that exercise is a preventative treatment and not an acute treatment. In the throes of a panic attack, it can be difficult to even stand up, let alone complete a highly physical task.
As indicated above, this is why many people with anxiety disorders resort to eating. Replacing anxiety distractions is difficult, so it’s best to use the KISS model: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Instead of trying to replace eating with jogging; replace eating with knitting, playing Angry Birds, or listening to music.
The key is to look for a healthy distraction, something that will help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety without causing another problem to pop up. Remember, the goal isn’t just to relieve anxiety; it is to lead a good life and to be happy. We achieve wellness by connecting our mental and physical health together.
Howard, G. (2015, February 18). Why Do We Eat to Relieve Anxiety?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/02/why-do-we-eat-to-relieve-anxiety
Author: Gabe Howard
Thank you for sharing what works for you. Everyone is different, and there are so many approaches to relieving anxiety. It's great when readers share their own tips.