Too Anxious To Eat: How Anxiety Is Linked To Loss Of Appetite And How To Manage It

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated July 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mental health challenges such as anxiety, panic disorders, and chronic stress can suppress the urge to eat in some people. You may be able to reduce an anxiety-related appetite loss with health interventions such as meditation and regular exercise. Other methods, such as eating a bland diet and avoiding panic triggers, might make it easier to get enough to eat. Addressing the underlying anxiety by working with a licensed mental health professional online can also be helpful.

Is Your Anxiety Keeping You From Getting Enough To Eat?

Why Can Anxiety Suppress Your Appetite?

Hunger is generally a vital biological drive, and it might seem strange that your emotions could suppress it for more than a little while. However, anxiety may be linked to an equally primal instinct: the urge to run away.

Researchers have found evidence that people with higher baseline anxiety tend to have increased activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which is the network of nerves and glands that typically trigger your response to danger. 

When the sympathetic nervous system is strongly activated, your body usually shifts its focus toward the functions that are essential for fending off or running away from danger:

  • Your pupils may dilate, potentially letting more light in so you can see the threat clearly.
  • Your lungs may expand to let you take in more oxygen. You may also feel the urge to take big gulps of air.
  • Your heart may beat faster to pump all that oxygen to your muscles.
  • Your body may flood with adrenaline. This stress hormone can put you on high alert and trigger an urge to move.

Anything that’s not essential to your immediate survival usually gets shut down for the moment so that your body can put its resources into getting you out of danger. That can include your urge to eat and drink. After all, you can last a lot longer without food than you can in the stomach of a saber tooth tiger!

Feelings of anxiety can increase your sympathetic nervous system’s activity, even when there’s no real threat to your safety. This may be even more common with mental health conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. This increased stress response might stop you from feeling hungry when your body needs food.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms And Anxiety

Another way that anxiety can make it difficult to eat may be by disrupting the normal activity of your stomach and intestines. Some studies indicate that people with an anxiety disorder can be more likely to experience frequent nausea, along with other gastrointestinal disturbances, such as heartburn, diarrhea, and constipation. You might find it hard to work up an appetite if you’re feeling sick to your stomach.

Social Phobia And Difficulty Eating

Some people may experience fear and anxiety specifically related to social interactions. The psychological community often refers to this phenomenon as social anxiety or social phobia. This might interfere with your ability to eat in social settings like dinner parties or family gatherings. If you find that you frequently feel sick, worried, and unable to eat around others, you may be experiencing social anxiety.


How To Address Anxiety-Related Appetite Loss

A persistent lack of appetite can have negative effects on your health. If you aren’t eating enough, you may begin to experience malnutrition, potentially leading to problems such as:

  • Weakness and loss of muscle mass
  • Low energy
  • Poor cardiovascular health
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased immune system function

Poor nutrition can also contribute to psychological symptoms, including apathy, depression, and increased anxiety.

On a positive note, this suggests that restoring healthy eating habits can assist you in recovering from anxiety. Here are a few ways you may be able to improve your nutritional health when anxiety is suppressing your appetite.

Exercise Regularly

Research on the health benefits of exercise suggests that maintaining a regular exercise routine can improve your appetite sensitivity. That can mean you’re more likely to feel hungry when your body has a genuine need for energy. Habitual exercise appears to help your body better time its cycles of hunger and food intake.

It may not be necessary to engage in high-intensity workouts to get these benefits. For many people, adopting a light but regular exercise habit can improve their appetite. As a bonus, there’s evidence that exercise can reduce your overall level of anxiety.

Eat Smaller Portions More Often

When your loss of appetite makes it difficult to finish a meal, it may be helpful to plan lots of smaller meals throughout the day. Scheduling can help with this, since you may not be receiving the normal hunger cues that it’s time to eat. This approach may also require thinking ahead and taking healthy foods with you throughout the day to avoid falling into a habit of eating unhealthy snacks.

Look For Foods That Are Easy To Eat

Some foods may be easier to consume despite a lack of appetite. Many people find that liquid foods feel less filling than solids, for example, so smoothies or soups may be a good way to ensure you’re taking in enough energy. It can be possible to make nutrition-rich drinks by blending vegetables and high-fiber foods with a little bit of fruit for sweetness. Keep in mind that premade smoothies sold in stores can have large amounts of added sugar, so it may be better for your health if you prepare your own drinks.

If anxiety-related gastrointestinal issues are making it difficult to eat, you may find it helpful to consume blander meals. Bland foods tend to be easy to digest, high in fiber, mild in flavor, and soft in texture. This can make them less likely to trigger nausea, heartburn, and other stomach issues. Examples may include rice, bread, oatmeal, cereals, tofu, lean meats, and certain vegetables, such as carrots, beans, and spinach.

Practice Meditation

Adopting a regular habit of meditation may reduce the physiological stress response that’s suppressing your appetite. Studies have found that regular meditation can lower stress markers such as blood pressure, cortisol, and inflammatory molecules, not to mention improving participants’ overall mood. This may not require a large investment of time. Many of these experiments have observed beneficial results from just 15-20 minutes of meditation per day.

Manage Your Stressors

Anxiety may not affect you the same way in every situation. Many people feel increased sensations of worry or panic in response to particular sources of stress, such as loud noises, social situations, or unfamiliar places. You may find it helpful to take note of what kinds of stressors make it difficult for you to feel hungry. Then, you can attempt to plan your meals for times when these factors are less likely to be present. Additionally, it can help to be mindful of any instances of anxiety after eating, as this may indicate specific foods or eating habits that could be exacerbating your symptoms.

Is Your Anxiety Keeping You From Getting Enough To Eat?

Anxiety Can Also Cause Overeating

Not everyone with anxiety experiences a loss of appetite. Many people with chronic feelings of worry or panic are prone to overeating, binge-eating, or consuming unhealthy but flavorful foods. This may provide some psychological comfort in response to the stress produced by anxiety. For some, the two phenomena may be related. An individual may feel unable to eat during periods of intense anxiety, then overeat later to compensate once their hunger returns.

Many of the interventions suggested above may also reduce tendencies toward overeating. For example, some research indicates that regular exercise can prevent overeating. Reducing your stress through meditation can make you less likely to overindulge in comfort foods as well. Other things that might help include getting better sleep, scheduling meals at regular intervals, and avoiding eating while distracted by television or the internet.

Therapy For Anxiety May Improve Your Eating Habits

Interventions like eating bland foods or avoiding stressors may make it easier to consume enough food despite a lack of appetite. However, your best bet may be to address the anxiety that’s causing your difficulties with eating. The American Psychological Association’s research-based clinical practice guidelines indicate that psychotherapy may be the most effective way to treat anxiety. Working with a therapist may be your best path toward reduced anxiety and better nutritional health.

Some people with anxiety find it difficult to seek and attend therapy in person. Online therapy can offer a convenient alternative, allowing you to locate a licensed mental health professional through the internet and communicate with them using remote tools like online chat and voice or video calls. The increased sense of distance and control this option typically provides may help you feel more comfortable engaging in the therapeutic process.

2016 review of the existing clinical research concluded that internet-based therapy can be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders in adults. This paper examined past studies on several different diagnoses, including generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, agoraphobia, and panic disorder, among others. The researchers concluded that online therapy generally showed no drop in effectiveness compared to face-to-face treatment.

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Anxiety can disrupt eating habits in a variety of ways, including suppressing your appetite by activating your body’s fight-or-flight response. You may be able to counteract this with strategies such as exercise and meditation. Adjusting your diet and eating schedule might also make it easier to get enough nutrition despite a reduced appetite. Engaging in therapy to treat your anxiety can be an effective way to treat the root cause of your loss of appetite.

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