If you live with anxiety, you know how incredibly debilitating it can be. It can also be incredibly annoying, popping up at inconvenient times, and sometimes at times that make no sense whatsoever. If you get anxiety when you eat, you’re not alone. Millions of people experience this on a daily basis, and research has finally given us some clues as to how and why it happens. Read on to learn more about why it happens and how to put a stop to it.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a heightened baseline of worry around potential threats. Our mind and body has a system that is designed to address threats. Our adrenaline increases, our heart rate increases, changes to our gut occur, and other changes can happen as well, anytime we are faced with a threat.
Remember, though, that anxiety is also in the mind. That means that what “counts” as a threat differs depending on the person. You can perceive things as a stressor that aren’t actually threats, like going to the grocery store or pumping gas at the gas station. This is where anxiety becomes debilitating and we look to seek treatment for it.
A person who does not have anxiety will see these “potential threats” for what they are; non-threatening situations that have an extremely low likelihood of any dangerous events occuring. If you have anxiety, you will question the logic of this. After all, don’t you need to think about every possible situation that could occur in order to avoid the worst ones occurring?
If you resonate with that, I would highly recommend speaking with your doctor or a professional, because that is the crux of anxiety. There are real threats and perceived threats. In people with anxiety, those perceived threats are moved into the “real threat” column.
Why does anxiety after eating happen?
As mentioned above, feeling anxious or uncomfortable after a meal is totally normal. If this is something you’re going through, you might end up avoiding food altogether because of it. Be careful not to slip into this habit, because it can become a full-blown eating disorder. Instead, look to the gut to determine why your anxiety triggers after you eat. Here are some potential causes of anxiety after eating:
One reason why you get anxiety when you eat could be GERD, or Gastrointestinal Esophageal Reflux Disease. GERD occurs when stomach acid repeatedly flows back into your esophagus from your stomach. This can cause things like nausea, bloating, burping, a sour taste in the mouth, frequent heartburn, dry cough, and a sore throat or hoarseness.
Unfortunately, it can also cause anxiety, and worse, sometimes anxiety can cause GERD. This is why it’s so important to get checked out if you have anxiety; getting your anxiety under control can have a positive effect on the whole body.
It’s likely that if your GERD is causing anxiety before or after eating, it’s your body trying to send signals to you that something is wrong. The good news is that GERD is incredibly common, and treating it isn’t difficult. Medication is available that can decrease the acid levels in your stomach, and you can also include more probiotics and fiber-rich foods into your diet to help reduce GERD symptoms, and thus, reduce anxiety over time.
You should be sure to avoid spicy or fatty foods as well as alcohol. You can also consume certain things for immediate relief like ginger or peppermint tea. If you are living with GERD and you take steps to address it, your anxiety symptoms should reduce as your physical ones do.
2. Reactive Hypoglycemia
Reactive hypoglycemia, sometimes called postprandial hypoglycemia, happens when blood sugar drops after a meal — usually within four hours after eating. Symptoms of reactive hypoglycemia can include:
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- A fast or uneven heartbeat
- Feeling weak or tired
Another symptom is, you guessed it, anxiety. Many of the above symptoms also come with anxiety, so your body is likely triggering an anxious response based on your low blood sugar. It tends to crop up when you eat foods high in sugar or processed carbohydrates, and symptoms can also occur when you consume alcohol or caffeine on an empty stomach.
If you believe you have reactive hypoglycemia, talk to your doctor. It can also help to include whole grains and fiber into your diet, choose leaner proteins like fish and poultry, incorporate more fruits and healthy fats like nuts, yogurt, and avocados, and start your day with protein and complex carbs.
3. Trigger Foods
Another reason why you get anxiety when you eat could be trigger foods. Some foods can bring on anxiety symptoms even if they don’t give you heartburn or affect your blood sugar. These include:
- Cheese, cured meats, and other fermented foods. This is because they contain histamines. If you’re on medication for anxiety already, you may be prescribed an antihistamine like hydroxyzine, which can help block histamines in the body and possibly increase serotonin in the brain.
- Caffeine. This can disrupt sleep and worsen anxiety because of its stimulant properties. Symptoms can include restlessness, feelings of uneasiness, and rapid heartbeat, all of which contribute to worsened anxiety symptoms.
- Trans fats. According to a study published in the Iranian Journal of Psychiatry, there is an inverse relationship between trans-fatty acids and depression and anxiety. In other words, the more trans fats you consume, the higher the likelihood that you will develop anxiety or depression. The same study also found that omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, found in salmon and fish oil supplements, may decrease the likelihood of developing anxiety.
- White flour, sugar, and other processed carbs. These can cause adrenaline spikes that trigger panicky and anxious feelings.
- Alcohol, as mentioned above.
If you eat these foods regularly, try keeping a food diary to see if they’re influencing your feelings of anxiety at all. Some research suggests a strong link between anxiety and sugar cravings, so avoiding sugar altogether may be more difficult.
4. Food allergies and sensitivities
I found out recently that I’m mildly allergic to bananas. I’ve been eating them my whole life, and only recently found out that ripe bananas aren’t “spicy” to everyone. You might have heard a similar story from a friend or family member, or you might have even experienced it yourself. Food allergies can range from very mild, like my case with bananas, to highly severe, like a peanut allergy. Importantly, symptoms can be very similar to that of a panic attack, and can include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Tightness in the throat
- Tingling or numbness in the mouth (That “spicy” feeling)
- Rapid heartbeat
These symptoms can come on quickly and can make your body go into panic mode because they feel like you’re panicking. Your body could be trying to tell you that something is wrong, like with GERD, and send you anxiety as the messenger.
The most common food sensitivities include:
- Nightshade vegetables, like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and sweet potatoes.
- Sulfites and other additives
A food diary is, again, recommended to determine if any one specific food is triggering the anxiety. You may be able to slowly remove different foods that you eat that trigger the anxiety in order to help it go away.
Also, keep in mind that even mild allergies can become more severe and cause anaphylaxis over time, so it’s important to suss out what your allergy is, even if it’s not what’s triggering your anxiety.
Seek emergency medical care if the anxiety symptoms you experience after eating include sudden low blood pressure, racing pulse, fainting or dizziness, or difficulty breathing or swallowing.
5. Old habits
If you’ve had specific eating patterns in the past that you’re now trying to rectify, like an eating disorder, you may feel anxiety when fighting your old urges. Remember that we slip into disorders because somewhere deep down we feel they’re protecting us from something, and fighting that urge to protect ourselves can make our body feel incredibly afraid and anxious. The longer you stick with your new way of eating, the more your anxiety should die down, but remember to seek support if you feel you need it. Some therapists are eating disorder specialists and can help you address any anxiety you may feel when trying to form and stick to healthier habits. Feel free to reach out to Modern Era Counseling if you’re looking for this type of support– we can help!
Additionally, lapsing into old eating habits in general can cause anxiety. Say you cut processed carbs out of your diet completely. A few months later, you find yourself craving a slice of cake and, figuring one piece of cake won’t ruin your diet completely, you pick up a slice on the way home.
After your treat, you feel upset and panicky, wondering if you’ve failed or if you’ll be able to get back on track. This is totally normal. Remember that you are in control, and you can walk alongside the wagon when you fall off until you’re ready to get back on, whether that be that very night or three weeks from now. With weeks or months of success behind you, there’s no reason to expect that you won’t be able to succeed again.
6. Past experiences
You may have old negative experiences with food. Unpleasant memories can often trigger anxiety. If you had a bad experience while eating a certain food or at a certain location, those bad memories may pop up when you revisit that meal or restaurant. This can happen with interpersonal things like bad arguments, or with personal experiences like food poisoning or choking.
Additionally, uncomfortable sensations like feeling overfull, having indigestion or heartburn, or tightness in the throat and chest after a large bite of food can all contribute to your anxiety as well. It’s also common to feel anxious about feeling anxious. All of these things combined can create the perfect storm for an anxiety attack to come on.
Remember that you don’t have to force yourself to eat something that makes you feel uncomfortable. If you need to, practice setting boundaries with friends and families around certain restaurants, meals, or amounts of food. That being said, if you’re missing out on a favorite food or restaurant, you might find help speaking with a therapist.
Wondering why you get anxiety when you eat is totally normal. Anxiety can come up out of nowhere, and sometimes, it makes no sense why it’s come up. That being said, there are plenty of reasons that eating can contribute to anxiety, and there’s no reason to feel awkward, embarrassed, or ashamed about it if it happens to you. Take steps to determine what is triggering your anxiety, and, if needed, speak with a professional to help you find solutions.
If you or a loved one are seeking therapy due to food-related anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out! At Modern Era Counseling, our team of therapists is trained to help you dig into what exactly is triggering your anxiety and help you come up with solutions to relieve symptoms. Give us a call at (704) 800-4436 or shoot us an email to get started today.