The Connection Between Anxiety And Weight Loss
Updated March 19, 2020
Reviewer Lori Jones, LMHC
Anxiety affects each of us differently. Stress drives some to eat, while others waste away. Your mental health impacts your physical health. When you deal with feelings of nervousness, apprehension, fear, and dread, it's going to take a toll on your body. If you're struggling with unwanted weight loss due to stress, it's helpful to learn how your anxiety impacts you and what you can do about it.
Your body will react to anxiety in different ways, depending on your level of stress and ability to cope. Anxiety can cause you to do different things that will affect your body weight, like:
- Overeat, or 'stress eat'
- Forget to eat or skip meals
- Crave junk food, comfort food, or sugary snacks
- Lose motivation to exercise
Any of these behaviors can result in rapid weight change. Often, weight gain is a common and problematic result of prolonged anxiety. While most people are more concerned about gaining weight, weight loss is just as much of a problem. According to the American Psychological Association, 30 percent of Americans skip meals because of stress, and of those, 41 percent say it's a habit. And when you don't have extra weight to lose, losing it can be concerning. Even if you do want to lose weight, skipping meals isn't healthy. Not only is it ineffective, it can cause additional health problems. But don't worry, there is plenty you can do to stop weight loss due to stress.
How Anxiety Causes Weight Loss
There are several ways that stress and anxiety can cause weight loss, including:
Fight or Flight
Any kind of severe stress triggers a response we call "fight or flight." In this stress response, your body prepares to fight off (or flee from) a real or perceived threat. That's why your muscles tense and your heart races. Your body also recognizes it will need more fuel to combat this threat, so your metabolism increases.
Under normal circumstances, your body will return to normal once the threat has passed. But if you have severe anxiety, your body continues to prepare for fight or flight even when you're no longer in danger. As a result of the increase to your metabolism, your body may begin to take needed fuel from your body's fat stores, leading to weight loss.
Lack of Sleep
A common symptom of anxiety is insomnia. Anxiety sufferers often find themselves tossing and turning for hours. Besieged by intrusive thoughts, you may have trouble falling asleep. If you do fall asleep, you may find yourself waking up frequently throughout the night.
When you don't get enough sleep, your body doesn't produce the right levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Insomnia becomes a vicious cycle for anxiety sufferers. When you are unable to sleep, your body's ability to handle stress is further compromised. Cortisol also affects your body's metabolism, and this is the reason those who suffer from anxiety with insomnia often experience changes in their weight.
You may have noticed that whenever you're in a stressful situation (like about to give a speech or if you're having an argument), you may find yourself experiencing GI symptoms, like nausea or bowel issues. That's because your stomach and intestines are directly affected by the stress response. Digestive issues due to stress are normal. But when anxiety is prolonged, this response can result in long-term problems like frequent vomiting and irritable bowel syndrome. If you are suffering from frequent stomach and intestinal pain, you may avoid eating, since food can aggravate these symptoms.
Forgetting to Eat
Often, anxiety sufferers will find themselves preoccupied with worrying thoughts. This can take all your concentration so you forget to engage in basic self-care, including eating.
Do you fidget or tap your feet when you're anxious? Or perhaps you pace aimlessly around the room to cope with your nervous energy. These constant movements are burning calories and fuel. Over time, this can contribute to unexpected weight loss. To deal with your anxiety-induced weight loss, it may be helpful to pinpoint what situation or event is triggering it.
What Causes Stress That Affects Weight Loss?
There are two kinds of stress: immediate stress and prolonged stress. Immediate stress occurs when you're overwhelmed, surprised, or afraid. Prolonged stress occurs when ongoing stressors affect your emotional, physical, and mental health. Some things that cause prolonged stress include:
- Work, employment, and career stress
- Academic stress
- Conflicts in personal relationships
- Mental health and chronic illness
- Financial stress
Each of these are examples of prolonged stress, or stress not easily resolved.
How to Manage Prolonged Stress
The frustrating part about prolonged stress is that you often don't know when the issues causing the stress will end. Because of this, it's important to learn two things: acceptance for things you cannot control and healthy stress management skills. Common effective stress management skills include:
- Deep breathing. Concentrate on calming your mind as you take deep breaths in and out.
- Light cardio exercise. Going for a brisk walk can help you manage stress more effectively without further depleting your body's needed stores of energy.
- Track specific events or situations that trigger your anxiety. Keep a record of meals and caloric intake to better understand the connection.
- Artistic expression. Drawing, painting, singing or playing an instrument can help you release some of that nervous energy.
- Relaxing hobbies. Whether it's crocheting, hiking or singing karaoke, doing something you enjoy can help you calm your mind and quiet your nerves.
- Maintaining self-care. If necessary, put a reminder in your phone to tell you when it's time to eat, bathe, or sleep. Above all, exercise basic "sleep hygiene" to ensure your body gets the rest it needs.
Preventing Unwanted Weight Loss
Besides identifying and treating the causes of your anxiety, there are some other strategies available to halt anxiety-induced weight loss.
Choose High-Protein and High-Carb Foods
Protein and carbs are the healthiest way to provide more fuel to meet the increased demands of your metabolism. Some examples would be oatmeal, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and grapefruit.
Work with a Nutritionist
A professional nutritionist will work with you to create a meal plan that maximizes needed protein and carbs in your diet while offsetting any stress-related digestive problems.
Take a Multivitamin
A multivitamin is a good "safety net" for ensuring your body continues to get the nutrients it needs, even in times of stress.
Losing control of your body weight can be another stressor in addition to all the others you face. But with a little help, you can regain control of your body and mind.
Work with a BetterHelp Therapist
Work with professionals who will guide you in learning ways to manage stress and weight-related issues. If you're suffering from anxiety due to prolonged stress and feel your weight or physical health is being affected, consider talking to a therapist at BetterHelp. With compassion and expertise, they will help you develop positive and healthy eating habits. You can read reviews of some BetterHelp therapists below, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Shana is a very helpful and thoughtful counselor. Shana not only helped me work through my immediate problems but discussed a path forward so that I could find more time to enjoy myself and manage the stress and anxiety in the future. I really appreciate her counseling."
"Ryan came into my life when I was lost, depressed, anxious and stressed. His help was available straight away which is exactly what I needed when the situation felt hopeless, and I could access it from the comfort of my own home. Writing has always been the best way for me to process my thoughts and I think I would have struggled to be truly vulnerable and speak honestly in a doctor's office. When I've had face-to-face counseling previously I have ended up sugar coating my issues as it's felt scary or embarrassing to say them out loud. That defeats the purpose. Online counseling is perfect for me and even though I'm now ready to stop, I am pretty sure I will need it at some point in my life again. Ryan responds back quickly, really listens and is non-judgmental, compassionate and warm. He doesn't do the work for you but rather gives you the best tools possible for you to tackle the issues and ideas to think about."
Anxiety can wreak havoc on your mental and physical health. While you can't eliminate all stress from your life, learning the strategies above can help you stay on the right track, even through the most difficult times. Working with a counselor can help you identify the underlying causes of anxiety, and learn tools to overcome anxiety in healthy ways. Take the first step today.