Maybe you mindlessly snack after an important work call. Or maybe an argument with your partner leaves you without an appetite. Although these eating habits are at different extremes, they are both normal responses to stress and anxiety.
According to one survey, 27% of adults say they eat in response to stress, while 30% report skipping a meal due to the same cause. Both overeating and undereating are common ways of coping with certain feelings, including stress, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
Undereating is linked to acute stress
Undereating tends to be the most common response to an acute stressor, like the first day of school or being stuck in traffic.
When the body is stressed, it activates the fight or flight response . If that happens, we have to prepare to ‘fight’, and we’re going to divert the body’s resources from things we don’t need at the time, like digestion. In addition, stress or anxiety is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as nausea, cramps, abdominal pain, and diarrhea , each of which can keep us from eating normally.
Stress is normal and the occasional impact on eating habits will not harm us. But when a person spends too much time eating too little, their bowel function can slow down. This results in delayed gastric emptying, i.e. going to the bathroom less. And it means that food moves from the stomach through the entire small and large intestine much more slowly. This actually creates early satiety, or early fullness, when you go to eat. Over time, the result could be malnutrition , which only exacerbates anxiety.
Prolonged Stress May Mean Overeating
Overeating may be more common in response to chronic stress, such as struggling at a job, being exposed to trauma in a violent neighborhood, or being in an emotionally abusive relationship.
When we experience chronic stress, cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) is frequently released in the body, which can promote food cravings and a greater drive to eat. When people experience chronic stress, they may seek comfort in delicious food. This releases dopamine and feels good. It’s like a feeling of escape. Eating can also feel like an outlet or distraction from dealing with the stress you are facing.
Constant overeating also has effects beyond the obvious physical repercussions of weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Weight gain is linked to feelings of sadness and depression .