How to Practice Mindful Eating When You’re Anxious

When we're anxious, we tend to want to push negative feelings away. For some, this dynamic plays into a suppressed appetite. Mindfulness can help calm the brain and re-connect us with the body.

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“It is an unpleasant feeling; I want to get rid of it!”—These are often the only words people can express when asked to describe their anxiety. However, anxiety is an emotion that occurs very frequently and it may strongly affect eating behavior. It is not the same as fear, which is an appropriate response to danger. Anxiety is a more complex feeling, with elements of fear, worry and uneasiness, and is often accompanied by restlessness and muscular tension.

The origins of anxiety

In general, anxiety is the unpleasant feeling of dread that something negative is going to happen in the future. The feeling of anxiety is particularly fed by rumination, such as worrying about calorie-intake, weight gain, appearance, social rejection, healthy, or unhealthy foods. The list of threats is endless. People with restrictive eating patterns (or more extreme: anorexia, orthorexia) often experience anxiety before, during, or after a meal. The food is seen as a potential threat to their weight or health. Through controlling emotions, thoughts, weight, or food intake, people try to get a grip on this undefinable feeling. Unfortunately they continue to affect us and bring us even more anxiety. “Anxiety comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment,” as Thich Nhat Hanh states in his book Savor. When we have the power to look deeply at our emotions at this moment, then anxiety, fear, and worry cannot control us anymore.

First step: Welcoming our feelings

The first part of looking at our anxiety is just inviting it into our awareness without judgments, being overwhelmed, or suppressing the feeling. This process of pausing and allowing the uncomfortable feeling creates a space and brings a lot of relief.

Second step: Acknowledging what is here

When we can acknowledge our anxious thinking, we will see clearly how it keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. Only then we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, we are still alive, and our senses can experience the beautiful colors and the delicious tastes of food on the plate.

Third step: Connecting with the body

Emotions don’t just happen in the brain, they are closely linked to the condition of the body. We may not realize we are hungry, excited, anxious or happy, without this link to a reaction in our body, particularly in the heart and the gut. The body gives a signal—a stitch, cold feet, a heat flare, or a nerve signal—that doesn’t even register in our consciousness.

When we practice welcoming all our anxieties and not pushing down our feelings, we can simply enjoy the sunshine, the fresh air, the water, the food on the plate.

Fourth step: Dialoguing within

“Is this anxious feeling coming from something that is happening right now or is it an old fear or worry from when we were young? What does this feeling want to tell us?” When we practice welcoming all our anxieties and not pushing down our feelings, we can simply enjoy the sunshine, the fresh air, the water, the food on the plate. A daily practice of mindfulness can be of enormous help. When we begin with awareness of our breath, we bring ourselves to the present moment and are better able to meet whatever comes our way. But don’t wait for a crisis before trying to practice transforming anxiety into living more mindfully. If we make mindfulness practice a habit, we will already know what to do when difficulties arise. No longer anxious, we are able to make free and balanced choices for our health and well-being.

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