Anxiety doesn't always make a great deal of sense. It can hit at any moment. And in some cases, it can regularly strike without any explanation why.
One example that affects millions of people - especially those with panic attacks - is the development of anxiety after eating. After eating a full meal, many people seem to experience anxiety symptoms and sometimes even a full-blown panic attack.
Below, we discuss the anxiety symptoms after eating, the five main reasons why it occurs, and what you can do about it.
Symptoms of Anxiety After Eating
Anxiety has many symptoms; the combination of symptoms is unique to each individual. However, there are some common signs of anxiety:
- Muscle tension
- Sweating (such as clammy hands)
- Rapid heart rate
- Quick breathing
- Choking sensation
- Sense of dread
- Feelings of worry that are difficult to control
So, you’re experiencing some of these physical signs after eating. But why?
5 Main Reasons for Anxiety After Eating
There is no one potential cause of feeling anxious after eating - it could be down to many reasons. It may arise due to mental health conditions or a medical condition. Or, it may be something completely different! You need to understand why you’re experiencing anxiety after eating, regardless of the reason behind it.
Let’s look at five common causes of food-related anxiety.
#1 Uncomfortable Physical Sensations
Some experience uncomfortable physical sensations after eating. This could be due to food intolerance, affecting around 20% of the US population. Or, it may be down to an unexplained cause.
Let’s explore some of the most common uncomfortable physical sensations after eating.
While anxiety and hyperventilation can cause chest pain, so too can eating. Food can get lodged in your chest on its way down, and the feeling of being full can lead to the development of minor chest pains.
Chest pains are a known panic trigger, so this may be leading to feeling anxious after eating.
Certain foods can trigger heart palpitations. Heart palpitations are an awareness of your heart and a feeling of skipped beat or rapid heartbeat.
While doctors have linked it to carbohydrates, sugars, and sodium, it's not entirely clear what food may trigger the palpitation or why it only affects some people some days and not others. Most likely, it is a combination of naturally present anxiety and food.
While the reason they occur isn't entirely apparent, they're generally safe, but if a rapid heartbeat occurs, it is very likely to trigger feeling anxious after eating.
Lightheadedness and Feeling Full
After eating a big meal, the body tends to slow down. Sometimes this is referred to as a “food coma.” When you have panic attacks and anxiety, any change in how you feel - like lightheadedness - can be an anxiety trigger. You may not even realize you're becoming tired or light-headed, but your body knows, which leads to more anxiety.
Indigestion is a collection of physical symptoms that can begin the moment you start eating. It may lead to issues such as:
- Feeling full
- Stomach discomfort
- Feeling sick
- Acid reflux
Any of these symptoms may (and do often!) trigger anxiety. There are also some theories that stress causes the body to digest food poorly, which in turn causes more indigestion. That may be why those that have stopped their anxiety do not experience anxiety after eating anymore.
There are more physical sensations than this as well. For example, people with specific food sensitivities may have other symptoms that trigger anxiety. Those that have some form of diabetes may also have physical sensations. Furthermore, ingesting caffeine may increase heart palpitations and various physical symptoms. All of these could be contributing factors.
Many people with anxiety also have gastroesophageal reflux disorder, known as GERD, heartburn, or simply "acid reflux." It's the creation of too much acid that also moves up the esophagus and causes a host of problems, some of which include:
- Chest pains
- Stomach discomfort
- Breathing difficulties
Some believe it leads to heart palpitations as well. As mentioned earlier, all of these symptoms can cause anxiety, so if you have GERD, you may be at risk for anxiety after eating simply because you have anxiety and your GERD has not been controlled.
#2 Anxiety and the Gut
The gut may also be responsible for anxiety after eating. The gut and brain are connected in what’s called the gut-brain axis. The gut is also commonly called the “second brain” because of the variety of hormones, neurotransmitters, and nerves it links to.
When you encounter stressful times or danger, your body releases neurotransmitters and hormones that influence your stomach’s functioning. People suffer from a wide variety of anxiety-related stomach issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), abdominal tension, and, as we already know, indigestion.
Therefore, it’s safe to say this may be a two-way relationship. If anxiety can trigger stomach difficulties, the guy may likely be able to elicit an anxious reaction.
This is why it's always a good idea to eat healthy when you have anxiety: there are reasons to believe that the healthier you are, the better you feel, and the less anxiety you'll have.
#3 Trigger Foods
Perhaps you only experience anxiety after certain foods. We call these “trigger foods” - foods that trigger anxiety. Some of the most common trigger foods are:
- Trans fats
- Cured meats
- Fermented foods containing histamine
- White flour
- Refined carbohydrates
Trigger foods may have specific effects on the body that causes anxiety. For example, caffeine is a stimulant that increases the circulation of adrenaline and cortisol, two of the main stress hormones. White flour and sugar have a similar effect.
Individuals with an eating disorder (bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or anorexia nervosa) may also experience anxiety after eating foods they consider bad for them. Some of the likely trigger foods for these eating disorders are:
- Sugary foods
- Ice cream
The consumption of this food may lead to many adverse feelings for those with an anxiety disorder, including anxiety, shame, and self-disgust.
#4 Reactive Hypoglycemia
Reactive hypoglycemia is a medical condition whereby people experience low blood sugar and a spike in insulin production within hours after a meal. For individuals with this condition, their blood sugar levels can drop dangerously low, leading to:
- Profuse sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Pale skin
It can also make you feel anxious, confused, and irritated. Similar to eating disorders, there are “trigger foods” in reactive hypoglycemia. These tend to be foods high in sugar and processed carbohydrates.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, you must seek advice from a medical professional such as a doctor. They will be able to give you the diagnosis and treatment you need to manage the condition.
#5 Trauma-Related Anxiety After Eating
Not all anxiety may be triggered by how you feel. Past experiences may also trigger food-related anxiety. For example, let's say you fought with someone during or after eating. You may start to experience anxiety when you finish eating despite nothing technically causing it.
Similarly, those that have experienced panic attacks either after eating or in a specific eating location often get anxious whenever they're in the same situation. So, for example, if you had anxiety in an Indian restaurant, you may be more prone to anxiety the next time you're in that restaurant.
Also, suppose you had a panic attack just once for any of the reasons listed above after a big meal. In that case, even if future meals do not cause any of those same symptoms, you may get anxiety simply because it's been associated with that big meal.
This is one of the reasons that eating healthier alone isn't enough: you're still going to need to control your anxiety if you want to break that cycle.
Ways To Reduce Food-Related Anxiety
No matter what causes your anxiety, you no doubt want to know ways to control it. Of course, knowing how to treat the problem is difficult if you don’t know what’s causing it. That’s where a medical professional such as a doctor would come in handy - they can provide you with a diagnosis and advice on the best method of action.
#1 Try Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises can work wonders for calming the nervous system, which reduces your stress after eating. One such exercise is CO2 breathing. This involves cupping your hands (or placing a paper bag) over your mouth and breathing slowly. This encourages the flow of carbon dioxide into your lungs, which helps balance the CO2 within your system.
You can learn more in our article on breathing exercises for anxiety.
Some yoga exercises also specifically focus on helping the body after eating. Vajraasana, after a meal, hones in on the abdomen and upper body, increasing blood flow to the stomach, which helps the digestive system. It also slows breathing.
#2 Talk to a Mental Health Professional
Talking therapy is highly effective for lessening anxiety symptoms. Speaking to a mental health professional such as a therapist or counselor may help you to get to the root cause of your anxiety and provide you with coping strategies to manage your anxious thoughts and feelings.
Anxiety researchers demonstrate that talking therapy is a particularly popular form of support for those with generalized anxiety disorder. It has been shown to improve mental health and ease anxiety symptoms.
Treating your anxiety’s underlying cause will help you move on from it and will likely reduce your stress after eating.
#3 Keep a Food Diary
Keeping a food diary can help you to identify any trigger foods or foods that make anxiety more likely to occur. In a food diary, you’ll need the date, time, meal, and an anxiety rating from 0 - 5. After a week, look at your log and try to identify any patterns - are there any foods that consistently resulted in higher anxiety levels?
If you find a pattern, it’s worth thinking about why these foods are feeding your anxiety. Are you worried about weight gain, or are they having a physical effect on you that is stimulating anxiety?
Anxiety after eating is not uncommon, especially for those with panic attacks. People that have GERD or those that hyperventilate may be at extra risk. Identifying some of the possible causes of this post-eating anxiety can give you some tools to fight it, but ultimately it will still be important to address the anxiety itself overall.