One of the most common questions I get from my clients is how to manage their anxiety without turning to food. This can be a tricky question to answer because everyone has different triggers and habits associated with managing stress and anxiety. The first step, though, is always finding healthy coping skills that work for you and practicing them so they become second nature. With this in mind, here are six ways to manage anxiety without turning to food.

What is anxiety?

Let’s start by defining anxiety and understand that you’re not alone. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress. It makes us feel uncomfortable, worried and can even cause physical reactions like sweating or a racing heart rate.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, over 40 million adults in the US suffer from anxiety. In addition, approximately 7% of children ages 3-17 experience symptoms of anxiety. Most people develop symptoms by the age of 21.

Since Covid, these rates have skyrocketed. According to one study, rates of depressive disorders as well as anxiety disorders have increased by 25%.

Common symptoms of anxiety.

So, like I said, you are not alone. Anxiety symptoms can range in severity. They can range from worried thoughts to not being able to leave your home. Common symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Fear of worst case scenario
  • Always anticipating negative circumstances in the future
  • Pounding or racing heart with shortness of breath
  • Feelings of panic
  • Insomnia
  • Upset stomach and digestive issues

Do you manage anxiety with healthy or unhealthy coping skills?

Your anxiety can be managed with either healthy or unhealthy coping mechanisms. What do you notice is your go-to when you feel anxious? It’s usual to turn to substances to help ease or numb the disturbing feelings associated with anxiety. It’s usually food.

This is why anxiety and emotional eating go hand in hand, especially for those who suffer from anxiety disorders like OCD or panic disorder. It has been found that 4 in 10 Americans overeat or use food to manage stress. Another 1/3 skip meals due to stress.

Do you emotionally eat to manage your anxiety?

Clearly, there is a lot of stress out there but unfortunatley, these methods do not create long term ease.

Let’s take a look at how anxiety and emotional eating relate to each other.

Emotional eating manages your anxiety but it’s a quick fix.

You are stressed out about an upcoming presentation for work which causes you to avoid your friends who offer support or advice, then what happens? You feel depleted because of the lack of social interaction so turn to food despite knowing it will impact you negatively physically.

Or, it’s the end of the day. You’re wiped out. You’re frazzled from a long day with the kids, cleaning, running errands, and making sure everyone is fed and clean. It’s finally quiet in the house and you get time to yourself.

What brings you comfort in these moments? If it’s food, you are most likely emotionally eating due to the stress of the day, feeling empty and worn out. Food is energy. And let’s be real, it tastes really good and gives the brain that boost you’re needing.

The hard part is that food is only a quick fix. In reality, it only makes you feel worse about yourself and doesn’t really manage the anxiety in a way that serves you best.

Food could be your drug of choice!

We all know that anxiety and emotional eating go hand in hand. So for those who comfort eat, what happens when you give up food? When you no longer turn to food as a coping mechanism or drug of choice, there is nothing left to distract you from the anxiety.

So how do you battle anxiety without turning to food? You can’t live without food so it’s not like you can be abstinent. Instead, you can manage your anxiety without turning to food with healthy coping mechanisms. The kinds of tools that actually work long term instead of the quick fix bandaids that don’t last.

First, embrace two important mindsets:

Practice self-care – Make self-care your new hobby. When anxiety strikes, what is the first thing you do? Usually it’s checking e-mails, texts on your phone, social media or of course, eating. Instead, find something that calms and centers yourself. Deep breathing, listening to music, gardening, meditation, or yoga. Find a relaxation app. You can check emails after!

Put down your cell phone- Ask yourself this question. Do you feel better or worse after spending time on your phone? Does your anxiety go up or down? If it goes up, then the phone is a distractive bandaid. Put it down and ask yourself what you really need in this moment? Listen for the answer. You probably know what you need and simply ignore the signs.

Here are six ways you can manage your anxiety without turning to food:

  1. journal – getting in touch with what you are feeling won’t kill you. I know it can feel overwhelming to tap into emotions. This is why you’ve avoided them with food. Since that no longer works, try facing your feelings. “Feel the feels” I say! The only way to manage your anxiety is to actually face what you feel without any judgment. Then you can process them with writing, talking about it, or seeking a professional to work through them.
  2. practice gratitude – when anxious, it’s so hard to focus on anything else but the worry or stress. This is why you feel yucky and turn to food to manage those negative feelings. Instead, find one thing that you can focus on that is positive in your life. Even when you can’t find anything, the fact that you are breathing can be enough for the moment.
  3. engage with positive, compassionate self-talk. It’s time to do away with the critical and negative voices in your head. They don’t serve you and need to shut the heck up! If you practice talking to yourself the same way you would a child or anyone you care about, you will start to feel better, more at ease, and less stressed out.
  4. take care of your body in a way that feels good – instead of numbing out with food, you can actually choose to do something kind for your body. A bath, a mani/pedi, a face mask, or a walk around the block will do you wonders.
  5. find something to control – anxiety is about feeling out of control. Instead of fretting about what you cannot control, find something you can. You can clean part of the house, or a neglected drawer. You can drink a cup of tea to soothe you, you can call a friend. Choosing to use these methods are things you can control!
  6. reframe the way you are thinking about your worry – instead of thinking of worst case scenario or “what if” this or “what if” that, focus on the here and now. I say, replace the “what if” with “what is”. What do you know is true in this moment. You’re wasting valuable time and energy focusing on things that you don’t necessarily know will happen. And to be honest, the “what if’s” usually never happen! Focus on what you know is true now and let the rest happen. Trust you have resources to manage how things play out.

There are many more ways to manage your anxiety without turning to food, but this can be a great start and foundation. Start by choosing one of the 6 and then slowly build your tool box. Be patient. Old habits take time to break.

Remember, you’re not alone. If you don’t feel like you can break the turning to food cycle, then reach out for extra support and guidance.

Lesley Goth, PsyD is a sustainable weight loss coach. She teaches women how to break their emotional eating cycle so that they can experience healthy, sustainable weight loss and never have to diet again. For more information on Lesley’s free masterclass click here.