People often associate anxiety with weight gain, but most people don’t realize that it can also cause weight loss. Symptoms of anxiety can lead to changes in your metabolism, decreased food intake, increased body movement, changes in bowel functioning, and increased muscle tension, all potentially leading to weight loss.
Can Anxiety Cause Weight Loss?
Different symptoms, such as sweating or weight loss, accompany different anxiety disorders. If you have a specific fear (e.g., public speaking or heights) or situational anxiety, you may only have anxiety symptoms when you encounter that specific thing or experience. However, if you have something like generalized anxiety disorder, you may experience symptoms constantly. When that happens, you’re more prone to health effects like changes in sleep patterns, eating, or exercise routines.
Here are ways that weight loss and anxiety are connected:
- Body in motion: while some people need to calm their anxiety, others need to release it. Those who need to release it are constantly in motion – fidgeting, pacing, bouncing their legs, wringing their hands, or whatever else they can do to keep busy.
- Appetite loss: you might not realize that you’re hungry, or if you do, you may feel full faster. Think about times you’ve been really nervous before, such as for a job interview – the idea of eating a full meal right beforehand seems much less appealing.
- Gastrointestinal issues: did you know that most of your serotonin, the neurotransmitter most closely linked to anxiety, resides in your gut? When your serotonin is out of whack, so is your gut, which can lead to bowel issues.
- Fight or flight response: anxiety is fundamentally caused by an error in your brain’s danger alert system. You sense danger in more places than it realistically could be, causing your body to remain ready to fight or flee, which speeds up your heart rate and metabolism.
- Medication side effects: some anti-anxiety medications can lead to weight loss, so if you choose to take medication to help manage your symptoms, know that this could occur.1
- Increased nausea: related to GI issues, you may feel nauseous or even vomit when your anxiety is high. The reduced appetite that accompanies nausea, along with a desire to avoid feeling sick, can lead to decreased food intake and therefore, weight loss.
- Increased metabolism: when you stay in fight or flight mode for prolonged periods of time, your metabolism speeds up in order to keep up with your body’s demand. An increase in metabolism means you need fewer calories in order to meet your body’s needs.2
- Changes in social life: in order to avoid activating your anxiety, you may find yourself agreeing to social events less often, cutting down on how often you eat out or go out for drinks.
How to Manage Anxiety & Weight Loss
There are several ways to manage anxiety and weight loss. Some are action-oriented like taking charge of your diet and exercise, while others are more mental, such as monitoring your caffeine intake or remembering to pause and take mindful breaths.
Ways to manage anxiety weight loss include:
- Eat regularly: You might need to set reminder alarms to eat regularly since it can be so easy to forget to eat when your appetite is decreased. Some foods can actually help decrease anxiety more than others, so try playing around in the kitchen with recipes.3
- Yoga: yoga can decrease anxiety by taking you out of your anxious thoughts and into a calm, present moment. Yoga can help decrease muscle tension and enhance your mood.4
- Modest exercise: moving your body releases neurotransmitters that help your body naturally decrease stress and build resilience. Exercise doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym; start small by choosing something you enjoy such as walking, biking, or dancing.5
- Decrease stress: anxiety is typically an internal experience, while stress is often a result of external events. If possible, delegate certain tasks, lower external influences, and decrease your stress. Try journaling, taking more frequent breaks, or just stepping outside into sunlight for a few minutes.
- Breathing exercises: whether you notice it or not, you likely take quick, shallow breaths using your chest when you’re anxious, resulting in less oxygen intake. Try pausing a few times a day and performing slow, deep, mindful breathwork from your belly.6
- Monitor caffeine intake: caffeine is a stimulant, and the effects of it can mimic anxiety symptoms. Stimulants activate your fight or flight system, perpetuating the anxiety cycle.7
- Improve sleep hygiene: stress and anxiety can change your sleep and provoke insomnia, which in turn increases anxiety. Limiting light and noise before bed and having a consistent bedtime routine can support healthy sleep habits.8
- Go to the doctor: sometimes anxiety is caused by hormonal imbalances, so getting bloodwork done to rule out other causes is a good first step. For instance, decreased thyroid output can result in weight loss and anxiety.9
How to Be Safe With Anxiety & Weight Loss
Given western society’s focus on thinness as the ideal, weight loss may sound positive. However, any weight loss should result from healthy levels of exercise and diet changes rather than from nausea, low appetite, or constant fidgeting. If you notice that you’re losing weight despite no obvious or intentional changes, pay attention. Too much weight loss for your body could result in long-lasting health changes.
When to Seek Professional Help
When anxiety begins affecting your gastrointestinal health, it’s time to seek help. If you’re experiencing anxiety to a degree where your weight can no longer be maintained, listen to your body and reach out for help. Most therapists will also want you to see your doctor to rule out any physical causes for anxiety and weight loss.
Anxiety-induced nausea and weight loss can become problems that demand professional treatment, which might involve a team, including your regular doctor, a dietician, and a therapist. Choosing a therapist can be intimidating, but a free therapist directory can help you filter to find a licensed therapist specifically trained in therapeutic modalities to reduce anxiety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Make sure you feel comfortable with the therapist you choose and that they’re able to explain the anxiety treatments they recommend.
If you notice anxiety-induced weight loss, talk with your doctor to make sure the rate at which you’re losing weight is safe and rule out any physical causes. Speaking with a professional therapist can also help reduce anxiety, as they are trained to help uncover causes of anxiety and find the best treatment for it. There is always hope for regaining a sense of control over your body’s health.