Weight and Mental Health

How are Anxiety and Weight Related?

Max Carmody, MSc

Anxiety can lead to both weight loss, or weight gain. There are conflicting reports about whether weight loss can result in a change in anxiety levels, with many studies finding that weight loss neither increases, nor decreases anxiety.

Anxiety is a tricky subject. It is a common ailment, many people suffer from it, including myself at times. Anxiety is generally referred to as a feeling of dread, fear, or uneasiness. It is characterized by worried thoughts, tension, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. There is a difference between having occasional anxiety, and having an anxiety disorder. Experiencing occasional anxiety is pretty normal, it happens to most people, but people with anxiety disorders have intense, persistent, and persistent fear and worry of everyday situations. Some examples of anxiety disorders include: social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and separation anxiety disorder.

Gaining Weight Due to Anxiety

Anxiety can lead to both weight gain and weight loss. Specifically anxiety in the form of stress can lead to weight gain. This weight gain can be either due to eating more, as a self-comforting mechanism, or how your body responds to increased levels of cortisol. Cortisol is “nature’s built in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of the brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. Your adrenal glands – triangle shaped organs at the top of your kidneys, make cortisol”

Whenever you are stressed, your body releases adrenaline to fight off what you are feeling anxious about. When your adrenaline wears off and blood sugar drops, cortisol jumps in to give you more energy to address the threat. This release of cortisol can trigger sugar cravings, and increase your appetite. In addition to making you hungry, the cortisol can slow down your metabolism, this is to help you conserve energy to deal with whatever is going on. 

According to one study, cortisol can also decrease lean muscle mass. This decrease in muscle mass can make it more difficult to manage weight. Stress can also impact the hunger hormones, grehlin and leptin, these both send signals to your brain that determine how hungry you feel. Cortisol increases these hormones to help you deal with perceived threats. 

On anxietycentre.com, according to an online poll of people with anxiety disorders, 60% of them claimed that they had gained weight due to anxiety. From a personal standpoint, I could absolutely see how this could happen. Even hormonal reactions aside, for me I want to eat when I’m feeling any sort of uncomfortable emotions. And I think that a lot of people do. I have definitely eaten more when I’ve been feeling anxious. Or, I have eaten in response to a lot of other mental health issues. If you would like to read more about whether mental health can affect weight, you can find a blog here that I wrote on the topic.

Losing Weight Due to Anxiety

Some people on the other hand, do not gain weight, but actually lose weight due to anxiety. Depression and a lot of other mental health issues are similar in that they impact different people differently, causing weight gain in some, and weight gain in others. 

The most likely cause of weight loss in anxiety, is a loss of interest in food. Sometimes people with intense anxiety start to lose their appetites. You can end up starving yourself and this can cause rapid weight loss. But this also eats away and eats at muscle, so if you do start eating again, you may gain weight more quickly. Sometimes people with anxiety also end up moving a lot more. They get nervous tics, or shake a lot, or start pacing. I know that for me, when I’m very anxious, I often pace a lot.

Some people may lose weight due to lifestyle changes. Some people with severe anxiety and panic attacks don’t go out as much, so they don’t end up drinking or eating big meals out as much, and this can result in consuming fewer calories. Overcompensation is also possible, people with anxiety may exercise more and try to eat healthy to control their anxiety (I sometimes exercise to try to calm down anxiety, so I get this), and this can lead to weight loss. 

At times you may experience changes to your digestive system which can cause weight loss. Anxiety and a lot of stress can cause a very upset stomach, if it is bad enough. This happened to my brother. He was having a lot of stomach issues, and nausea, and it was so bad that he didn’t want to eat, and lost weight. He is already pretty thin to begin with. He couldn’t figure out the cause of his upset stomach, but it did turn out to be anxiety related, and as he got on some medication for anxiety, his nausea got a lot better, and he stopped losing weight.

Can a Change to Weight Impact Anxiety?

I think that for me personally, if anything, losing weight results in decreased anxiety. When I am over my goal weight, I wouldn’t say that it causes an intense amount of anxiety, but it definitely adds a little bit of stress for me. When I get the weight off, I can feel that stressor reduced. Especially if one is exercising more and eating healthier to get off weight, the combination of moving around more and a healthy diet can lead to weight loss. 

According to some however, weight loss may actually cause anxiety. Or the pursuit of weight loss. Some people claim that heavily restricting what you eat, and attempting to rigidly follow “fad” diets may lead to increased anxiety.

However, according to a meta-analysis, that combined the results of multiple scientific research papers, weight loss did not either increase, or decrease anxiety. “The benefits of weight loss for those who are overweight or obese do not appear to either increase or reduce psychological stress at the end of the weight loss period”

If you would like to read about how you can use meditation and mindfulness to manage anxiety, you can get a concise e-book on the topic here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *