When Anxiety Makes You Lose Your Appetite

A fairly common symptom of anxiety is losing your appetite. Some people forget to eat or aren't hungry, but otherwise feel okay. For others eating is difficult and unpleasant when they're nervous. They may feel nauseated, or like they have to choke down every mouthful.

The reason this happens is that anxiety puts your body into Fight-Or-Flight mode, where it's prepared to physically flee from or fight off a threat. Eating and digestion aren't a priority in that state. Unfortunately your body reacts to abstract dangers like upcoming exams and presentations as if they were concrete ones like a mugger or a tornado. Also, other effects of anxiety, like nausea, a churning stomach, a tense throat, or a dry mouth, can make eating feel unappealing.

Sometimes this appetite suppression is short-lived and pretty inconsequential, like if you skip breakfast the day you have to give a presentation at work in the morning. At other times you're going through a longer stressful patch and eating much less than normal over several days or weeks.

It feels awful enough on its own to be wound up and nervous to the point where your appetite starts to suffer. When your anxiety prevents you from eating you can also develop some secondary worries about the symptom itself:

Here are some ways you can deal with a poor appetite that's caused by your nerves:

A few general suggestions

Take steps to reduce your anxiety

The simplest way to get your appetite back is to cut down the anxiety that's curbing it. Of course 'reduce your anxiety' is an incredibly broad suggestion, and this article can't begin to explain every method to do that. A whole section of this site covers several approaches.

A few things you could do in the short-term are:

Longer-term you may need to do things such as:

Try gently forcing yourself to eat

Sometimes when you have a poor appetite it feels like you couldn't possibly eat anything, but once you start you find you can finish more than you thought. Eating may be slower and feel like more of a chore, but you can do it.

The thought of eating when you don't feel up to it might make you a bit anxious, on top of the nerves you already have for other reasons. You might fear eating will make you feel nauseous and terrible, but if you confront that belief head on you may find it was just a false worry, and that you can eat just fine.

If you're getting worried about not having eaten much for the last while

Realize your body can bounce back from a period of less or no food

The human body is resilient and built to survive bouts of hunger. It's designed as if you're living with a tribe in the wilderness and sometimes won't find food for a few days. You may worry your health is falling apart if you're stressed and barely eat for a week, but your body can handle it. It has all kinds of systems to regain the weight you lost once your appetite comes back.

People eat less food all the time and come out just fine in the long run. They get busy at work and don't have time to eat lunch. They get a stomach bug and only have a bit of soup over four days. They go on diets and experience a calorie deficit for months on end. They fast and go completely without food for a few weeks.

That's not to say losing your appetite and eating less than normal will have zero effect on you. Ideally you can get as much food as your body needs each day. But just know that you're going to be okay down the road if you eat less for a short while.

Some calories are better than no calories

As I said, if you feel anxious and like you have no appetite, gently try to eat as much as usual anyway. You may be surprised you can eat just fine once you start doing it. But that doesn't always work. Sometimes anxiety really does limit your appetite. In that case eat what you can. Don't fall into All-Or-Nothing thinking where you conclude, "If I can't eat as much as normal, as easily as normal, then I might as well skip dinner entirely."

Less-healthy food is better than no food

Also, try not to stress too much if the things you're eating aren't ultra-healthy or varied. Your priority at the moment is just to get some food in you. Your body can handle a short period of less-than-perfect nutrition.

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Try to eat regularly throughout the day

Even if you don't eat as much as normal each time, try to get a semi-steady stream of calories into your body, as opposed to eating nothing for long stretches of the day. It can help keep your energy up, regulate your blood sugar, and so on. Try to have at least a small snack every couple of hours. Have a bowl or package of something you can munch on, or a drink you can sip, within reach.

Turn to easy-to-eat foods

Get at least some calories in you however you can. In general bland, bite-sized foods you can slowly pick at are easier to eat:

Turn to liquid calories

Fluids are an even easier way to consume some calories:

Again, soda, sports drinks, and juice are essentially sugar water and not the healthiest choice, but that's not important right now. Focus on getting some calories however you can to ride out this short-term issue.

If you're concerned about the social consequences of not having an appetite in a situation where people are eating

If possible, just tell people you're anxious and have less appetite

Anxiety has more power when you believe you have to hide it from everyone. I realize it may not always be a realistic option, but if you can, just tell whoever you're eating with that you're stressed at the moment and don't have as much appetite as usual. You don't need to make a big deal out of it. Casually deliver the information, maybe quickly explain what you're under pressure about, then move on to another subject. Just getting it out in the open may take some of the pressure off and make it easier to eat a bit.

Realize it's likely no one is paying attention to how much you eat

You may worry that if you don't eat as much or as quickly as usual everyone will spot it and judge you, but more realistically people aren't paying that much attention. Think about all the times you've eaten with others. I'm guessing you were focused on your own meal and weren't scrutinizing everyone else's plate. If your lack of appetite causes you to eat less than normal, or slowly pick at your food, odds are no one will notice.

If you feel it's necessary, do things to hide your anxiety-lowered appetite

Here are some things you could try:

Again, I think believing your anxiety is shameful and must be hidden can give it more power, but I know it's not practical to always be upfront about it. In those cases, do what you can to make your poor appetite fly under the radar.