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:
- Worries about the effect your lack of appetite will have on your health (E.g., "I'm super-stressed and have barely eaten for the last three days. I think I've already lost weight. This can't be good for me.")
- Worries about being questioned or judged if your lack of appetite prevents you from eating in a social situation (e.g., "I'm meeting friends for lunch, but the thought of food right now makes me feel pukey. What are they going to think when I don't eat? Are they going to ask what's wrong with me? Are they going to think I'm some weak, anxious loser who can't even finish a sandwich?") One of the unfair things about anxiety is worrying that you might get an uncomfortable or embarrassing symptom can create the nervousness that brings that symptom on.
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:
- Learn and start practicing some simple relaxation exercises
- Talk to someone for emotional support
- Cut any optional sources of stress from your life, if only for a short while (e.g., taking a break from a volunteer position that requires a lot of your free time)
- If the source of your stress is time-limited, like exams or the end of a big project at work, just remind yourself it will be over soon, then do what you can to get through it
- Visit your doctor and see what options they suggest
- See a therapist, even if it's only for a handful of sessions to help you get through a rough patch
Longer-term you may need to do things such as:
- Address bigger problems in your life (e.g., being in the wrong career or an unhealthy relationship)
- Make lifestyle changes, like getting more sleep
- Work on any habitual thought patterns that contribute to your anxiety
- Face your fears
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 try to eat and have slightly uncomfortable bodily sensations like a dry mouth, a mild feeling of gagging or nausea, or a gurgling stomach, try mindfully observing those feelings, rather than instantly reacting to them with more anxiety. If you watch them for a moment or two you may find they're not so bad, and that they pass on their own.
- If possible, take a moment to try to relax and unwind before eating. Instead of jumping right from some hectic work task to trying to scarf down a croissant at your desk, take a few minutes to clear your thoughts, breathe slowly and deeply, and loosen your muscles. Even five minutes of that may lower your anxiety just enough to make eating possible.
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.
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:
- Soft fruits, like bananas or ripe pears
- Cut-up crunchier fruits or vegetables like apples or carrots
- Dried fruits like raisins or apricots
- Nuts or trail mix
- Bread or toast
- Ice cream
Turn to liquid calories
Fluids are an even easier way to consume some calories:
- Smoothies (not too thick)
- Meal replacement drinks
- Sports drinks
- Soda (watch the caffeine levels, as that can contribute to anxiety)
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:
- Tell people you're not that hungry at the moment. Give a standard excuse, like you ate a lot at your last meal, or just don't explain it further. It's not that unusual for people to not be hungry every now and then
- Say you're feeling a bit sick to your stomach, rather than telling them you have anxiety
- If you're eating out, pick a meal where it's hard to tell how much of it you've eaten (e.g., noodles that are mostly submerged in soup)
- Pick a meal where you know you'll be able to eat at least some of the ingredients (e.g., a salad where you can pick out some of the vegetables, but leave the rest)
- Cut up your meal and move it around with your fork and knife, so it looks like you've eaten more of it than you have
- Do your best to otherwise seem like your usual self. If you're quieter or chattier than normal, or have more-nervous body language, that may catch everyone's attention, and then they may also notice you're not eating
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.