Here’s what to do if stress makes you unable to eat

In my previous posts, I’ve talked about the issue of stress, cravings and mindless eating. But there are many people who simply can’t eat as they try to cope with the surreal world we’re living in. For some, especially those who are isolated on their own, the stress can make eating a difficult task. For others, the tensions that can arise as people may be cooped up together can have an effect on appetites as well. While missing a meal or two or consuming less nutritious eats here and there won’t have an impact on your wellbeing, over time, it can take its toll.

Here are some strategies to get you back to the table.

While I have previously talked about avoiding distracted eating, if you’re on your own and simply have no appetite, distracted eating may be just what you need. Watching TV – obviously not the news – or reading something lighthearted or a topic that grabs your attention, can help to take your mind off the situation. Listening to music doesn’t tend to work the same way as it allows you to think which is the last thing you want to be doing when you’re attempting to eat in a distracted manner.

Try to make the fare of choice something you normally enjoy. If you’re tending to be queasy when you think of eating, don’t prepare anything with strong aromas that might put you off. But if just the smell of food – anything at all – is off putting, then go for cold or room temperature selections as they tend to have fewer aromas.

Then take your plate and slowly eat while you watch TV or read.

Getting in some exercise can also help if you’re feeling down or stressed.

But first, understanding how stress can affect your body can you in being able to eat.

Fight or flight – a primal survival mechanism

Here’s a simplified explanation if you’re feeling anxious or angry (which many people are not only because they’re worried about what’s happening but also because of possibly being confined 24/7 with family members or others in confined spaces).

Consider that while we may think of ourselves as being much more highly evolved, we’re essentially just like animals in that our bodies react to stress in the same way as an animal perceiving a physical threat. Think of a dog with its back up. The dog releases stress hormones into its bloodstream which causes its muscles to tense and it’s ready to fight or flee the situation. You certainly wouldn’t go to pat that dog as it would likely bite you. For the animal, using those muscles to flee or fight then dissipates the stress hormones.

Now back to us and our highly developed minds. We don’t need to be under a physical threat to go into fight or flight mode. Our emotions can set off the same cascade of hormonal changes. But instead of punching someone out (hopefully), we sit and stew in our stress hormones. Have you ever noticed how strong you become when you’re angry and how good it may feel to slam a door or throw something down hard?

That’s really the survival mechanism at work.

These stress hormones ready your body for battle in a number of ways. Your heart rate increases so that you will pump blood to those muscles and provide oxygen to let them do their work. Your blood sugar also rises so that you have fuel for your muscles. That’s why prlonged stress is linked to developing high blood pressure and diabetes.

Stress hormones also temporarily almost shut down your gastrointestinal tract as your body doesn’t want to digest food as it would divert much needed blood away from your muscles. Instead of salivating, your mouth would be dry, making eating unpleasant. For some, constipation can also be a consequence.

Sleeping when you’re bathing in these stress hormones can also be tough. You may not be able to fall asleep but if you do, you may have a very restless sleep. How could you when you’re in fight or flight mode? That’s like saying you should have a good sleep when an axe murderer is standing above you.
So what’s the solution? Get moving and use those large muscles. If you’re able to get outside, go for a brisk walk and pump your arms to use up those stress hormones. But if you can’t venture outdoors, do something which uses your large muscles – arms and/or legs for about 10 to 15 minutes. Put on some music and march or dance – whatever it takes to make you feel a little less stressed.

If you’re feeling down, getting in exercise can get some blood pumping through your system and give you a little lift.

Try these strategies and then go for some enjoyable eats.

Stay safe!

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Categories: Tips and Tricks

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “Here’s what to do if stress makes you unable to eat”

  1. Chloe
    April 15, 2020 at 8:35 am #

    I wish I found someone who knew how to handle this problem years ago when I still suffered from untreated anxiety. I would go for days, and sometimes a whole week, where I could eat next to nothing. I’m not sure if being distracted ever helped me (if it did – well – I was distracted so I don’t remember), but what DID get me through those weeks was drinking my calories. My mouth would cramp and sting and go dry at sight of an otherwise delicious meal. Trying to take a bite felt like choking. Nevermind chewing. Swallowing was impossible. But I could drink water just fine. So for me, I would drink smoothies (basil+mint+blueberry+raspberry, and peanutbutter+mango/strawberry+yogurt were my favorites) and then when I didn’t even have the emotional energy to make one, I would buy those nutrition shakes (marketed for seniors usually) at the drug store and drink those. Once I got tired of nutrition shakes I considered baby purred food, but thankfully I never got that desperate.

    • April 15, 2020 at 4:59 pm #

      Chloe, it sounds as though you went through a nightmare! And yes, drinking your calories is definitely one thing that can help. But if the stress hormones are extremely high, even smoothies can be tough to digest. I’m glad, though, that you are better! Yes, understanding how stress hormones can impact you and what you can do to alleviate their levels, even slightly, can make a big difference. Being distracted if you’re anxious isn’t as effective as exercise in decreasing stress hormone levels in the blood. Distracted eating is better for those feeling down. Hopefully this will be over soon and we’ll get back to something that resembles normalcy.

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