Stress and anxiety are serious issues that affect different people in different ways. For some individuals, chronic stress means consequences like insomnia or weight loss.
If you have a few pounds to lose, it’s easy to joke about weight loss being a nice side effect. However, sudden, unintentional weight loss is worth seeking advice about. If you haven’t deliberately changed your diet or started exercising more, then it makes sense to get yourself checked out if you start losing weight.
Weight loss associated with anxiety tends to be sudden and relatively rapid compared to weight loss from a deliberate diet or lifestyle change. On the other hand, some people gain weight due to anxiety because they lean towards comfort eating.
Rapid weight gain should be as much of a concern, healthwise, as rapid weight loss. It’s one thing to gain a few pounds because you know you’ve been eating more often, but rapid changes that don’t have an obvious explanation should be investigated.
Though weight loss or weight gain could be the result of an underlying medical condition, it could also be a result of stress and anxiety. And with rapidly increasing stress and anxiety rates across the country, experiencing these consequences becomes more likely.
How Anxiety Affects Weight
Anxiety and stress are terms that are used interchangeably in speech, but there are differences in the medical use of the terms. Stress is a short-term response to a dangerous situation or stimulus, and while stress is unpleasant, it has a clear cause and endpoint.
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Anxiety can occur at inappropriate times, be persistent, and last for a long time. Additionally, anxiety is the term that is used for someone who has stress-like responses to more mundane situations. The term describes a condition that can interfere with day-to-day activities.1
Anxiety can contribute to weight loss for a number of reasons. First, anxiety affects both physical and mental well-being. Someone who is suffering from anxiety may find that they are so anxious about social interaction that they don’t want to leave the house, which limits opportunities for socializing. Think about how much time you spend eating and drinking in social situations. If you’re not doing that, then you may end up losing weight as a result of reduction in social activity.
Second, anxiety has a number of physical symptoms, including sweating, elevated heart rate, and nausea. Tense muscles can also affect circulation, putting pressure on the stomach, which can lead to nausea and vomiting. Feeling this on a regular basis will not only curb the desire to eat but also prevent you from keeping food down, also resulting in weight loss.2
Research on Anxiety and Weight Loss
There have been several studies into the effects of depression and anxiety on weight, and the results have been mixed. One study from 2015 found that depression and anxiety appear to be correlated with weight gain over a two year period.3
Another study with a larger sample size showed similar results, in addition to allowing researchers to examine weight gain differences between genders. The study indicated that women appear to be more at risk of gaining weight if they are suffering from anxiety.4
Fighting Anxiety and Weight Loss
If you suffer from anxiety and you want to make sure that you don’t end up losing too much weight, there are a few things that you can do. Your first priority should be to try to find ways to get your anxiety under control. If you are prone to panic attacks and anxiety attacks, talk to your doctor about ways of managing them, in addition to thinking about self-help mechanisms. Some people benefit from breathing exercises and meditation, for example.
Long-term, look for ways to reduce your anxiety overall. Once your body is not constantly in a hyperstimulated, anxious state, you should find that your stress levels return closer to the baseline and your appetite should return to normal as well.
Some of these short-term self-help mechanisms for combatting anxiety and the associated weight loss are highlighted below.
Keep a Diary of Stressful Situations
Identify the times when you feel most stressed and try to find ways to reduce your anxiety during those times. Your goal should not be to start avoiding every situation where you might feel stressed, but rather find ways to work around these triggers in the short term and then build up to conquering that situation-specific anxiety in the long term.
For example, if you are bordering on being phobic of going to the dentist, you might try sedation dentistry at first so that you can get through an appointment without incident. Then, after keeping a few appointments that way, perhaps work up to having treatments without being sedated at a later date.
Find Ways to Slow Your Metabolism
If you’re struggling to eat enough because you are so anxious, try to find ways to reduce the amount of energy you expend. Typically, it’s a good idea to exercise because it’s important for your heart health. However, if you’re losing a lot of weight, then doing large amounts of exercise is perhaps counterproductive. Aim to get more rest, and consider trying meditation and other relaxation techniques until you can get back to exercising more regularly.
Increase Your Calorie Intake
If you struggle to tolerate certain foods because of nausea or a loss of appetite while you are anxious, look at other ways to take in extra calories. Protein shakes are quite calorie-dense, and fruit smoothies are full of carbohydrates—both would be good options for filling you up if the thought of eating or keeping down solid food isn’t appealing. Also, be sure to take a multivitamin each day to ensure that you’re getting the essential micro and macronutrients you need.
Learn to Relax
Consider trying meditation, yoga, and aromatherapy as a way of relaxing and as a supplement to overcoming your anxiety.
Aromatherapy is a particularly interesting option because there are many essential oils to choose from, and each one has the potential to impact the body differently—from increasing appetite to alleviating stress.
How Essential Oils Impact Appetite
Essential oils are the aromatic compounds of plants that have been distilled off to separate them from the plant matter and are therefore concentrated. Some essential oils are stimulating, and some are relaxing. Others can be useful for boosting energy levels, attention span, or appetite.
Essential oils can work as an appetite suppressant or stimulate appetite. For example, cardamom, a delicious-smelling spice, is often used to stimulate appetite. It is also used to soothe upset stomachs and promote digestion. Another popular option for stimulating appetite is petitgrain bigarade. This is popular because it provides calming and soothing effects that not only alleviate stress but help restore appetite.
Basil oil is another soothing oil that can be used to remedy upset stomachs. It is quite similar to tarragon in its chemical makeup, and the two are often used interchangeably.
Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the United States, affecting around 40 million adults—a total of 18.1 percent of the population—each year.5 This may seem like a surprising statistic if you do not personally know anyone who talks openly about anxiety, but it just goes to show how hidden it can be.
We are slowly, as a society, reaching the point where it talking openly about mental health issues is more common, which is an important first step towards reducing stress and anxiety rates. If you are struggling with anxiety, then know that you are not alone. The modern world makes some things very convenient, but it makes other things even more stressful, and we are still learning how to cope with that.