Anxiety and Appetite: How I Fell Back In Love With Food
I don't know about you, but when I get very anxious, one of the first things to go is my appetite. This brings additional distress because we tend to not feel very well when we're not eating enough. Not feeling well physically leads to more emotional vulnerability. Throw into the mix a long history of disordered eating due to trauma, and anxiety-provoked loss of appetite can become trigger city.
I became very concerned a few days ago when I got so anxious that I completely lost the desire to eat. Nothing sounded good -- not even my favorite foods.
How Might Anxiety Cause a Lack of Appetite?
Let's talk about what likely happened to cause this shift in body and mind, as I am ordinarily someone who loves to eat.
When we are anxious, our bodies go into "fight or flight," states that are intended to serve to protect us. Back in caveman days, fight or flight would kick in when someone would see a saber-toothed tiger, for example. The instinct to fight the beast or to get as far away from it as possible would instantly overcome a human being, short-wiring all other instincts, for survival purposes.
Upon this process beginning, one of the first things that the body does is stop digestion, as this takes up valuable energy from the body that is now needed to run or fight.
When digestion is abruptly stopped, we may feel sick to our stomachs, and we may experience irritable bowel. None of this is appetizing to the mind, and I experienced this during this anxious episode. Next comes a loss of appetite.
When we become frightened or anxious today, our bodies still respond in the very same way. Even if we are nowhere near the kind of danger that our cave people ancestors faced, if our body senses that we are in danger, it responds in like. This is, I believe, what recently happened to affect my appetite.
It became quite clear to me when I noticed that when I took my prescribed anti-anxiety medication, Ativan, I shortly thereafter felt calm enough to eat. I knew I needed to work on naturally self-soothing my nervous system in order to get back to having a normal appetite and eating again.
How My Appetite Came Back
Please note that if you're having trouble around eating or appetite, it is essential that you consult with a medical professional for support and guidance through this issue. I am going to share with you what works for me when an emotional crisis affects my appetite, but please seem medical and psychiatric help from a professional for your own, very individual situation.
My personal plan for when my appetite goes away:
1.) Even if I don't feel like it one iota, when I'm experiencing lack of appetite, I carry snacks with me and am sure to eat something every few hours. I carry things like Odwalla Bars, crackers, and fruit. Eating regularly keeps my blood sugar level and keeps me from feeling weak or faint. If I just can't seem to find anything that sounds good, I'll drink juices, smoothies, and have Ensure, but I really push myself to also have something solid. White rice works well. There is some "instant" rice that you can boil for 10 minutes in a pouch and then enjoy with a little bit of salt and pepper. I practically lived on this for a couple of days this past week.
2.) Stay hydrated. When we eat less, we tend to drink less, so keep up on juices and milk (which also give you energy) and water. I sometimes also have electrolyte infused beverages like reduced-sugar Gatorade (G2). I was recently told that coconut water is also very good in this way.
I bought two types of decaffeinated, soothing teas as well:
3.) Listen to your inner child. There are some things that, even when I don't have any appetite at all, I know I can manage to nibble on. This includes BelVita cookies, which remind me of a cookie biscuit I used to eat when I was little, grilled cheese sandwiches, and certain fast food items. If you're willing to eat it and it has some nutritional value, let your inner child make some decisions right now. I often think that it's this part of me that loses her appetite, so it's important to listen to what that part of me is willing to eat.
4.) Remind myself over and over that "This too shall pass." This week was not the first episode I've had with appetite loss. I've experienced this for pretty much all of my life. Anxiety is a huge trigger of appetite loss for many people. I have to remind myself that my appetite will, indeed, eventually come back, even if it literally feels like I can't imagine ever desiring to eat again. I also remind myself of why my appetite is lacking, which helps me to get motivated to do self-soothing activities to calm my nervous system, for example guided meditations, self-hypnosis as well as hypnosis sessions with my hypnotherapist, and muscle tension and relaxation exercises. Since learning about autogenics in IOP the other day, I now have another resource to add to my repertoire.
5.) Eat with others (or alone). This varies for me. Sometimes I find it much more comforting to eat meals with others. The conversation and atmosphere help to calm and soothe me, and I am able to eat without making food and appetite the sole focus of the meal. Other times, I prefer to eat alone, being mindful and not being distracted with other things. It's important to consider how either choice will help you eat at any given time.
6.) Take medications as prescribed. My psychiatrist, who is not big on pushing taking additional meds, encouraged me to take additional Ativan tablets during this time for the severe anxiety. I was resistant but I must admit, the medication did help me to calm down enough to eat when none of my other tools were working. I am glad I had it available to me as a resource.
7.) Let your doctor know how you're doing. Right now I am in IOP, so I have the opportunity to check in with clinicians and my psychiatrist about how I'm coming along. If I weren't in IOP, I'd likely email or call my doctor to let her know the progress I am making with getting back to eating normally.
And, I'm back! Today, I finally fell back in love with food again. I had this delicious Indian meal with my significant other....
and then this beautiful bowl of vegetable soup with whole grain bread later in the day:
If you're struggling with your appetite, please reach out for the help you need. Consider ways to self-soothe your nervous system so that your body can find calm and begin to make resources available for digestion again.
Think of some of your inner child's favorite foods. What are they? Maybe some warm soup? A grilled cheese sandwich? Macaroni and cheese? Pizza? I'd love to know.
Thank you for reading.
The author wrote this blog post several years ago. She is now in
RECOVERY from BPD and thriving as an emotionally sensitive person. She
teaches all she learned in her live, weekly, global ONLINE classes.
Learn more and sign up for a class at DBT Path.