manage anxiety non food ways

8 Ways to Manage Anxiety Without Turning to Food

August 4, 2016

Anxiety is common among those with weight and eating-related struggles. In many ways, anxiety can be productive. We feel anxious when we are thinking about something future-oriented and in some cases that can lead to actions that protect us from facing harm down the road.

However, many people experience anxiety, worry, and stress about things that they actually can’t do much about. Anxiety tends to feed off of unpredictability, uncertainty, and things that one might have very little control over. It expresses itself in a variety of symptoms including an increased heartbeat, worrying or ruminating, difficulty breathing, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, irritability, or restlessness. Often anxiety is triggered by thoughts rather than by an actual threat or danger.

So when feeling anxious, why is it that some turn to food and why isn’t the food of choice carrot sticks or broccoli? When individuals are anxious, and they find themselves rummaging through their kitchen pantry or fridge, they are typically looking for foods rich in sugar, salt, or fat. Better yet, some combination of those! Examples might be a bag of potato chips, cupcakes, Cheez-Its, French fries, sugary cereals, etc.  Why is it that people are more interested in these types of foods instead of healthier alternatives? Well, eating sugary, high-fat, tasty and palatable foods get some good juices flowing in our brain, namely serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins which can help someone feel better by reducing stress, emotional pain, and physical pain.

8 Ways to Manage Anxiety Without Food

  1. Deep breathing or meditation: If your body is at all experiencing a fight-or-flight response to stress or anxiety, the best way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for bringing you back to a state of calm) is to practice deep breathing. Breathe in from the belly for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold for a count of four and repeat. Focus on the breath. Notice the air fill up in your lungs and feel it being released through your nostrils or mouth. This will help signal to your brain that everything is OK. Focusing on the breath will also help your mind focus in on something other than your anxious thoughts. The more attention you give to your anxious thoughts, the bigger they grow, the worse your experience of anxiety becomes, and the more likely you are to turn to food.
  2. Ask yourself this question: “If anxiety wasn’t present right now, what would I be doing?” Now go ahead and do exactly that. The less you stop your life to respond to anxiety, the less power you give it. Carry the anxiety with you into your life. Doing this will result in living a more fulfilling life where anxiety doesn’t dictate your every move.
  3. Journal: Get everything down on paper so your thoughts aren’t spinning in your head. As you write down what you’re feeling anxious about, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do about the things that are making you anxious. If there are tangible things you can do, make an action plan for how to address these issues in your life. If you can’t, learn to let go and accept uncertainty, unpredictability, and your lack of control. Know that you can only focus on that which you have control over. Anxiety is often prompted by future-oriented thoughts. No one can predict the future, so as much as you can, try to bring yourself back to the present moment.
  4. Engage in visual imagery: This is one of my favorites! Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, focus your attention on your breath, and then take a trip in your mind to a place you remember that was peaceful and calming. It’s a little bit like daydreaming. Many people, for example, will choose to take a trip in their mind to the beach. The key to practicing visual imagery is to get very into the sensory experiences. Smell the salt water in the air, feel the warmth of the sun beaming on your skin, take in the breathtaking, colorful sunset, hear the seagulls in the background, listen to the waves crashing on the shoreline, and feel the sand between your toes.
  5. Get active: Go for a brisk walk, put some music on and dance around your home, or do a few jumping jacks. Remember earlier when I was mentioning how foods high in sugar, salt, and fat can release chemicals that light up the reward centers of your brain? Well, exercise can have an immediate impact in helping you release endorphins that help you calm down and feel better too. When you’re feeling tired at the end of the long day and have to choose between exercise and food, it makes sense to me that you might choose food. It’s easy, convenient, and reliable. Exercise might feel like a lot of effort in the moment. I encourage you to think about the long-term though and remember how you typically feel after eating the foods you typically do when you’re anxious and how you typically feel after engaging in some activity.
  6. Practice mindfulness and defusion: Mindfulness is a fancy word for awareness and defusion is a core element of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that focuses on getting some distance from your thoughts. Observing your thoughts and then getting distance from them can be helpful in giving you space to decide how you’re going to respond. It also can help you get less tangled up in your anxious thoughts. A simple mindfulness and defusion technique is to practice saying, “I am noticing I’m having the thought that..” For example, “I’m noticing I am having the thought that this anxiety feels terrible.” That is going to feel a little different than “This anxiety is terrible!” Another technique is to label the story your mind is telling. For example, “Oh I know this story. It’s the ‘I’m going to mess up story.’ It’s the one where I get up in front of my peers at work and stumble on my words and everyone laughs at me. I’ve heard this one before. I know how it ends. I’ll pass on hearing the ending and spend my time on something else instead.” Lastly, here is another mindfulness and defusion technique that might be useful: take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, imagine you are in a field of grass looking up at clouds, and as an anxious thought pops up, place it on a cloud and watch it float by. As the next anxious thought pops up, place it on the next cloud and watch it float by.
  7. Find that one friend who can always make you laugh and call them up: Google your favorite comedian and listen to some of their jokes online. My all-time favorite recommendation is to go to YouTube and search for something like “Laughing Chain” or “Laughing Contagious.” You’ll get some videos of a bunch of people laughing. As you watch it, it will be hard not to laugh yourself. Laughing releases endorphins and can help to reduce anxiety.
  8. If you find yourself already eating in response to anxiety and it feels like it’s too late, just know that it’s not! Practice mindful eating: Turn off your cell phone, turn off the television, put away the books and newspapers, and sit at a table with just you and the food you picked out. Take small bites, chew many times, and swallow. Pay attention to the textures, flavors, smells, and sounds of the food as you eat it. Mindful eating may help you feel more relaxed around the food that you’re eating, and you may end up eating much less of it than you might have otherwise eaten.

Try some of these out and let me know what you think! ~Dr. Doshi

Sapna Doshi


Dr. Sapna Doshi specializes in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Drexel University. She completed internship at Duke University Medical Center and trained at the Duke Center for Metabolic and WLS. Dr. Doshi provides pre-surgical psychological evaluations for WLS at Mind Body Health. Dr. Doshi works in Arlington Virginia. Read more articles by Dr. Doshi!

Photo credit:  andreas olsson cc