Why Do We Eat to Relieve Anxiety?

February 18, 2015 Gabe Howard

Americans love to eat. We have foods to celebrate as well as comfort foods. It's no surprise we eat to relieve  anxiety. Keep reading to learn more.

Americans love to eat. We have foods to celebrate, comfort foods, and even foods for specific events like popcorn at the movies, cake at birthdays, and is there really anyone among us who doesn’t feel pizza just tastes better during our favorite TV shows? Considering our culture of food, is it really a surprise to discover we are eating to relieve anxiety? Have you ever stopped and wondered why we eat to relieve anxiety?

There is a popular meme running around social media that says,

Food is the most abused anxiety drug. Exercise is the most underutilized antidepressant.

There is wisdom in those words, but reality isn’t quite that simple.

Eating During an Anxiety Attack is Simple

Anxiety can be very debilitating and even frightening. Eating during an anxiety attack is simple, almost automatic. As I’ve spoken about in this blog before, when I have a panic attack, salty snacks like pretzels help calm me down. This isn’t because pretzels have a medicinal property, but because the ritual, the habit, calms me down. The sensation of eating helps moves my focus away from the anxiety and onto the pretzels.

Americans love to eat. We have foods to celebrate as well as comfort foods. It's no surprise we eat to relieve anxiety. Keep reading to learn more.I didn’t start out with pretzels, however. I started with any food I could get my hands on. I ballooned to over 550 pounds because binge eating relieved anxiety. Again, the food wasn’t magical; it was a distraction. Many people replace food with drugs, alcohol, or self-harm. These things “work” because of the distraction. Ultimately, we are better served to pick a healthier distraction. In my case, I picked pretzels. I am still relying on food, which doesn’t make it the best choice, but it is the best I have been able to manage – and that is okay.

Replacing Anxiety Distractions Like Eating is Difficult

Given the physical and mental sensations that may occur during even a mild anxiety or panic attack, it really isn’t reasonable to suggest that someone “go for a run.” I will acknowledge the benefits of exercise, a fact that shouldn’t be in in debate, but what I think is being missed is that exercise is a preventative treatment and not an acute treatment. In the throes of a panic attack, it can be difficult to even stand up, let alone complete a highly physical task.

As indicated above, this is why many people with anxiety disorders resort to eating. Replacing anxiety distractions is difficult, so it’s best to use the KISS model: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Instead of trying to replace eating with jogging; replace eating with knitting, playing Angry Birds, or listening to music.

The key is to look for a healthy distraction, something that will help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety without causing another problem to pop up. Remember, the goal isn’t just to relieve anxiety; it is to lead a good life and to be happy. We achieve wellness by connecting our mental and physical health together.

You can find Gabe on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and his website.

APA Reference
Howard, G. (2015, February 18). Why Do We Eat to Relieve Anxiety?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Gabe Howard

June, 23 2023 at 7:53 am

I also struggle with eating when feeling anxious. Once I get an anxiety attack it goes nonstop, I always try other remedies first like playing on my phone, reading, taking a nap... But it keeps spiraling and my brain starts to get more anxious about whatever reason started it and about not getting the food. I found that a big glass of water with a lot of ice ( which I only like when I'm in this state) has helped me somewhat. I chew on the ice and drink some water and I start feeling like I can breathe or focus a bit better.

March, 16 2023 at 5:32 pm

Eating is the only things that's ever helped w my anxiety I never wanted to take meds for this because it doesn't happen too often. When it does happen though it's random & hits like a ton of bricks, I can't stand when someone says we'll what's wrong what are you scared of. I wasn't scared actually I was in my zone working listening to music & then BAM it struck out the blue. No one gets it until they get it, u til it happens to them. I can't replace eating something w running or exercise I'm at work so I hurried to get a slice of pizza. Now I'm sitting here ready to get back to work. I hate these feelings I get I wish there was another way to fix it but I haven't found a way that would work for me other than this.

October, 10 2015 at 1:57 pm

Have you tried googling herbal medicine/remedies?....... When I have panic/anxiety attacks. The furthest thing on my mind is eating. As a matter of fact I have lost 10 pounds within a month and a half. I would have an attack while I would be eating or snacking and the attacks would totally ruin my appetite for hours. When I have them now I pray, call on the name of Jesus, or read/quote a scripture. Until it leaves.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

October, 12 2015 at 12:14 pm

Hello SJA,
Thank you for sharing what works for you. Everyone is different, and there are so many approaches to relieving anxiety. It's great when readers share their own tips.

Nancy March
March, 27 2015 at 12:09 am

I have lots of problems with overeating ,with anxiety I always thought though it was from loosing my parents to cancer in my teens,and my struggles through life.340 is the highest ive been the drs putting stress on me to loose becuz i have OA in both kneesand other problems.Sleep Apnea too but I wont use the machine and the mask not with my anxiety

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