Anxiety and Compulsive Eating

Understand the Anxiety and Compulsive Eating Connection

March 9, 2022

Understand the Anxiety and Compulsive Eating Connection: As a survival mechanism, the human brain is hard-wired with the instinct to eat in response to hunger cues.

Beginning in infancy, the brain rewards eating with “feel good” neurochemicals that produce a sense of pleasure. As children grow, feelings that are more complex emerge including anxiety, loneliness, loss, frustration, and anger. It is easy to understand how a person would reach for the first tool that coped with primitive feelings of pain or frustration and use it to navigate ones that are more complex. 

Anxiety and Compulsive Eating

However, coping with food generally leads to physical health concerns, including diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Of course, there are other, perhaps more maladaptive, activities that produce a similarly pleasurable experience in the brain such as nicotine, gambling, illicit substances, and for some, shopping. While the consequences may be different, any time coping behaviors result out of pleasure-seeking, they can quickly become compulsions.

Compulsion: an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes.  

Underlying all compulsive behaviors is some degree of emotional disequilibrium that the brain seeks to correct.  Behavior that calms the nervous system is quickly learned and repeated.  Trying to stop a compulsive behavior without replacing it with a more adaptive, but also effective one, will only increase anxiety.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion that ebbs and flows according to a person’s genetics and environment.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, however, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States affecting 40 million adults, 18% of the population, every year.

It is no surprise that compulsive eating affects so many people. Food is necessary for survival and eating has the potential to relieve feelings of stress. Of course, the pleasurable feelings or distraction that compulsive eating provides is short-lived and sabotages overall health.

Identifying When and Where the Behavior Takes Place

To change behavior, the first step is identifying when and where the behavior takes place. Identifying the time and places provides clues to the emotional triggers or what prompts the behavior.

For example, if the afternoon is filled with children's activities, homework, and preparing dinner, do you reach for food? Do you notice compulsive eating during the drive home from work? For others, simply worrying about family, relationships, or any other number of stressors can trigger compulsive eating.

Paying attention to the when and where is the first step to replacing the compulsive eating with healthier behavior. Understanding the why helps make the change stick.

If anxiety leads to compulsive eating, then anxiety-reducing behavior is key to healthier eating. Begin by finding a quiet location and adding five minutes of a stress-reducing activity to your day. Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation and guided meditation, help regulate the nervous system and return the body to a state of emotional equilibrium.

Breathing exercises, such as simply breathing in through your nose for a slow count of three and out through your mouth for a slow count of six (which can be increased to counts of four and eight), and engaging in physical activity, such as walking and yoga, are all tools that reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm.

Activities that are not compatible with snacking, such as knitting or playing a musical instrument, can also reduce anxiety and be helpful in replacing compulsive eating behavior.

Discover which tools work best, and when you understand the when, where, and why anxiety surges, these tools will be in your toolbox.

Kimberly C. Kimchi, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and the Director for Behavioral Health at Missouri Weight Management and Metabolic Institute at the University of Missouri.

Anxiety and Compulsive Eating


Kimberly C. Kimchi, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist and the Director for Behavioral Health at Missouri Weight Management and Metabolic Institute at the University of Missouri. Dr. Kimchi holds a doctoral degree from Hahnemann University/Drexel University and fellowship training in neuropsychology from the University of Michigan. Currently, she is a faculty member within the Department of Health Psychology at the University of Missouri.