Two Mindful Practices for Anxious Eaters

When we investigate the roots of our anxiety in the moment, and separate anxiety from true hunger, it becomes easier to get a handle on unhealthy eating habits.

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Our mind wants to protect us from disaster, and so it is attracted to potential dangers—Today that includes “dangerous” foods. Our anxious mind tells us, “You shouldn’t have had that soda; research shows soda causes osteoporosis.” “Don’t eat too many eggs. You’ll raise your cholesterol and have a stroke.” “Don’t eat cantaloupe! It might give you salmonella!”

It makes sense that we eat when anxious, trying to relieve what we mistakenly interpret as hunger.

Who hasn’t become a little anxious trying to figure out what’s healthy and what’s not? And then that anxiety can trigger emotional eating. But, there is a good reason for this. When we make a list of signs of hunger—a gnawing, empty feeling in the stomach; rapid heart rate; feeling faint, weak, or dizzy; trouble concentrating; feeling irritable—we realize that they are identical to the symptoms of anxiety. So it makes sense that we eat when anxious, trying to relieve what we mistakenly interpret as hunger.

But then, when we realize that we’ve eaten inappropriately, we only feel more anxious, setting us up for a vicious cycle of emotional eating.

Anxiety –> eat –> become more anxious –> eat more –> etc.

Two Practices for Anxious Eaters

1. Investigate anxiety and its antidotes
Anxiety is so pervasive that we may not realize we are anxious. It can be helpful to track anxiety for one week. How does it manifest in your body? Do you hunch forward while driving? Do you tighten your brow or facial muscles when the tension mounts in a meeting? Does your heart rate go up when you hear the morning news? When does anxiety first manifest during the day? Before you get up? With the first cup of coffee? On the drive to work? How does anxiety manifest in your mind? Racing thoughts? A sudden desire to eat?

Anxiety is so pervasive that we may not realize we are anxious.

You can check your anxiety level at intervals during the day. If anxiety is present, stop and practice a few moments of mindful breathing. Anxiety can make breathing quick and shallow, so you might try somewhat slower and deeper breaths. Move your awareness as far as possible from the anxiety-producing thoughts in your head by shifting your awareness to the bottom of your feet and the solid ground beneath them. Imagine breathing out anxiety and breathing in peace of mind.

2. Separate anxiety from hunger

When you feel unexpectedly hungry, check internally and ask your body, “Is this true hunger or is it actually anxiety?” Ask yourself: “When was the last time I ate?” If it is anxiety, and not hunger, eating may make you feel worse. When we realize that your true need is not for comfort food, you can make another choice. We can “feed” and comfort ourselves in many different ways: call a friend, take a shower, drink a cup of herbal tea, take a five-minute walk outside, do a few yoga poses, play with a cat or dog, rest your eyes in nature, listen to a soothing piece of music, or do five minutes of meditation. Make your own list of “non-food comforting snacks” that relieve anxiety for you.

Anxiety is a very pervasive emotion in our modern, fast-paced society, but anxiety is not a good long-term fuel for life. It costs dearly in wear and tear on our bodies and minds.  Try these 11 ways to get out of panic mode, and this mindful eating practice for when you’re anxious.