Savvy Therapy

Food is the most abused anxiety drug. Exercise is the most underutilised antidepressant (Bill Phillips)

Continuing to look at the broader picture of why you may be carrying excess weight we are looking today at anxiety.

Anxiety disorder is a recognised disorder that has a number of conditions within it.  These are Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Phobia disorder,  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Social Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder.   These conditions should be diagnosed by a doctor and should not be self diagnosed.   Anxiety Disorders should be considered to be separate from feeling anxious which is an emotional issue.  All of the anxiety disorders are treatable but may take a more focused intervention to resolve.   

Anxiety Disorders are characterised by a fear of the future – a what if.  GAD is generally being fearful about everyday life; Phobia is a fear of, for example, spiders;  OCD is a fear that something will happen if a ritual is not completed;  social anxiety disorder is a fear of being with others; and, panic disorders is a sudden fear of death.  Anxiety and Panic are often used to describe reactions which are not within the range of the disorder but are about being anxious.  

So what has anxiety got to do with your relationship with food?  A person with an anxiety disorder may have a polarised response to their situation: either losing a lot of weight suddenly; or putting on weight over time.  Sudden weight loss in a person with anxiety disorder is because:

Anxious behaviour activates the stress response, which enhances the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it—which is the reason this response is often referred to as the fight or flight response or the emergency response.

Stress hormones are stimulants, which increase the body’s metabolism and fuel consumption. An increase in metabolism can tax the body’s energy resources harder than normal causing it to burn fuel faster. The faster the body burns fuel, the more it needs.

If the body doesn’t receive sufficient fuel from the foods we eat, it will get the necessary fuel from the body’s fat stores. This can cause weight loss if our eating habits haven’t increased sufficiently to offset the increase in fuel consumption caused by overly apprehensive behaviour.

When stress responses occur too frequently, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, the body can’t complete its recovery. Incomplete recovery can cause the body to remain in a state of semi stress response readiness, (which is known as stress-response hyperstimulation, also often referred to as “hyperarousal”).

Hyperstimulation can cause stomach and digestive problems. Those who experience stomach and digestive problems generally eat less because of stomach distress. Eating less reduces the amount of available energy resources for the body, and less energy resources causes the body to use its fat stores for fuel. As the body depletes its fat stores, the body loses weight.

Furthermore, stomach and digestive problems can impact the metabolism of the food we eat, causing a reduction in nutrient absorption, which can also cause loss of weight.

Sleep disruption is a common symptom of chronic stress. When the body’s sleep is regularly disrupted, it can cause the body to produce more cortisol than normal. Since cortisol is a stress hormone stimulant, higher levels of cortisol can cause the body to work harder, which can cause an increase in fuel consumption.

These are just a few examples of how anxiety and stress can cause weight loss. The more anxious and stressed you are, the more likely it is you’ll lose weight.

Gaining weight because of your anxiety disorder

Apprehensive behavior activates the stress response, which secretes stress hormones – including cortisol, the body’s more powerful stress hormone – into the bloodstream Stress hormones, which are stimulants, not only stimulate the body into action, they also cause:

  • the liver to release glucose (blood sugar) into the bloodstream,
  • a reduction of insulin (so that glucose remains elevated), and
  • body tissues (muscles and fat) to be less sensitive to insulin.

These changes increase available blood sugar so the body has more energy to deal with a threat – to either fight or flee.

Hyperstimulation taxes the body’s energy resources harder than usual, which can cause an increase in demand for fuel (the foods we eat).

Because the body is looking for instant fuel, we  crave for high-calorie foods, such as foods high in sugar and fat since they more quickly convert to fuel (blood sugar). This higher demand for food, and especially high-calorie food can cause some people to indulge in fast and high carb foods, which can increase weight in spite of the increase in metabolism hyperstimulation causes. In effect, some people ingest more calories than even hyperstimulation can use. These excess calories are stored in the body as fat, which increases the body’s weight.

Hyperstimulation causes the body to produce higher than normal levels of cortisol throughout the day. These higher levels create higher levels of blood sugar, which can cause some people to gain weight.

Furthermore, eating high sugar foods can have a temporary calming effect on the body, so some people indulge in high-calorie foods as “comfort” foods when stressed. Higher consumption of high-calorie foods can lead to weight gain.

As stress hormone levels rise, so does blood sugar. Chronic stress, such as that caused by overly apprehensive behavior, can cause chronically elevated blood sugar, which can cause weight gain for some people.  And may lead to type 2 diabetes.

Research has shown that stress causes an increase in belly fat for some people. Numerous studies have found that anxiety and other mental health challenges are directly linked to weight gain, so the anxiety/weight gain connection is well known.

Anxiety is a LEARNED behaviour.  Children learn how to be anxious from the adults and older siblings around them.  This may be a reason for increased childhood obesity.  Take the questionnaire – details are in the post –  if your score reveals a high level of anxiety which you are medicating with food, then you need to find other ways to deal with your anxiety including finding out what is making you anxious.


GAD 7 Questionnaire for Anxiety:

Anxiety and Stress Fact Sheet 

Stress and Anxiety in Children 

Fear, Worry, Anxiety, Stress fact sheet 

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