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Can Anxiety Cause Obesity?

There is a lot of evidence that obesity can contribute to anxiety. Being overweight not only hurts your self-esteem - it may also throw off your hormones and potentially lead to other anxiety-producing behaviors. Obesity doesn't necessarily cause anxiety, but it can contribute to it

But what if anxiety can lead to obesity? There is some evidence that anxiety can contribute to issues that may ultimately lead to developing obesity.

Obesity = Anxiety?

Being overweight can be a problem, and anxiety may contribute to that problem. Find out how you can prevent anxiety by taking my free 7-minute anxiety test now.

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Cause and Effect

It's important to keep in mind that it's nearly impossible to distinguish between obesity caused by anxiety and when obesity and anxiety are different conditions. The reality is that obesity - like anxiety - has more than one cause, so even when anxiety contributes to gaining weight, you cannot gain weight simply because of anxiety alone.

So treat them as different issues. Take my free 7-minute anxiety test to learn more about your anxiety, and strongly consider the same diet and exercise activities that you would use to fight your weight gain.

Possible Causes of Obesity From Anxiety

What's interesting is that anxiety may increase your metabolism slightly, which conceivably would lead to an increase in weight loss, not weight gain. Anxiety puts your entire body into fight or flight mode, preparing you to run away or fight at a moment's notice. That theoretically increases your anxiety and uses up your body's energy stores.

Of course, we all know that anxiety doesn't appear to help people lose weight - otherwise everyone suffering from extreme anxiety would be losing weight at a rapid pace. So the reasons that anxiety may contribute to weight gain include:

  • Cortisol Those suffering from anxiety release a considerable amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol causes fat to store in your stomach, leading to an increase in weight. The longer you experience stress, the more weight you may gain.
  • Digestion Changes Anxiety greatly affects digestion. It can slow or alter the way you digest. It's possible that this slow digestion is also contributing to some type of weight gain, especially over a long period of time.
  • Inactivity Anxiety also causes fatigue and an overall lack of energy. Your body burns calories by movement, so if you're not moving you're not burning as many calories. Weight gain is almost entirely due to the calories in/calories out ratio, so anything that you do that reduces that ratio may start to create weight gain.
  • Anxiety Medications Many anxiety medicines appear to contribute to weight gain. Xanax, for example, has been linked to weight gain in the past, and any depressant that causes fatigue could also contribute to less activity.
  • Eating Coping Many people find that eating helps them cope with anxiety. That's because eating can release "positive feeling" neurotransmitters in some people, causing them to look at eating as a coping tool for anxiety. The more you eat, the more weight you gain, thus causing obesity.

Remember that the two can also develop independently, or for similar reasons. Inactivity (a lack of exercise, usually) really does start to cause a significant increase in anxiety symptoms and an increase in obesity, as can poor diet, and those issues are can contribute to both conditions simultaneously without one technically causing the other.

Furthermore, there is the issue of self-confidence and self-esteem. Unfortunately, many people that struggle with obesity end up developing anxiety simply because they are overly concerned with their health and appearance. Metabolism also starts to slow down around the same age that some anxiety disorders - like panic disorder - become more likely to develop. All of these are other links between obesity and anxiety, which makes it difficult to ever know the cause and effect.

How to Treat Anxiety Obesity

The good news is that obesity is still treated the same way, no matter if it's caused by anxiety or simply overeating. However, make sure that you truly understand the causes and treatments of obesity. Keep the following in mind:

Calories in, Calories Out

There are very few "secrets" to weight loss. All weight issues are related to the number of calories you take in and the number of calories you use up during the day. You want the latter number to be higher, which means reducing caloric intake and increasing caloric output, but beyond that, there really isn't much else you can do.

There are a few tricks that people have noticed that can improve metabolism, like eating in smaller doses spread out over the course of the day, but beyond that, there is nearly nothing else you can do. Even eating healthier isn't necessary to lose weight, but it does improve your health which, in turn, improves your anxiety.

The reason this is important for your anxiety is related to the following tip:

Don't Do Fad Diets

Diets that tell you to only eat certain things or perform some strange dieting behaviors are called fad diets, and they need to be avoided - especially if you have anxiety. Fad diets do often lead to weight loss, but that's because fad diets cause starvation. When you're "juice cleansing" or on a "citrus diet" or doing any of those fancy diets that are recommended online, you're really just starving yourself of calories. Your weight loss is pretty much the same as if you ate considerably less food.

However, starving yourself has its downsides. First, from a weight loss perspective, your body may actually slow down its metabolism to ensure that it doesn't use up food too quickly. If that happens, when you start eating normal again you might be at risk of gaining weight faster than if you had never fad dieted at all.

Second, when your body is starved of calories and nutrients, your anxiety can actually increase. Starving puts considerable stress on your brain health, and that in turn causes you to experience more anxiety. So these fad diets may actually set you back, not help you. Reducing your caloric intake and eating healthier is good, but starving yourself or only eating one type of food can have lasting repercussions.

Exercise is Extremely Important for Mental Health - Not Just Physical

While you can reduce your caloric intake, you shouldn't starve yourself because that can increase your anxiety. So the next best thing is, of course, to exercise, since exercise burns off energy and thus helps you improve your caloric output.

But exercise isn't just valuable for your physical health or your weight loss. Studies have shown that exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your mental health as well. It releases neurotransmitters that improve mood and reduces stress hormones. It also helps your body regulate hormones in general, which in turn keeps every part of your body running efficiently.

So if losing weight and being healthy wasn't reason enough, your mental health can be vastly improved by regular exercise. Strongly consider it.

Don't Monitor the Scale

When it comes to obesity, don't monitor the scale. This is extremely important because when you constantly monitor your weight, you're often going to see numbers that make you unhappy or times that you don't see improvement.

That has an actual, tangible effect on your anxiety levels. It's far too easy to start to feel more anxious about your weight when you're checking the scale every day. If you absolutely must weigh yourself, do it only once a month to see progress from the previous month. Daily checking could increase your anxiety and cause you to lose some of your motivation.

Attack Your Anxiety Directly

Just like you need to address your obesity, so too do you need to address your anxiety. After all, since anxiety can lead to the development of weight issues, you're going to struggle to control it if you cannot also control your anxiety.

I've helped hundreds of people struggling with obesity and anxiety overcome their issues starting with my free 7-minute anxiety test. This test is a great tool for using your symptoms to figure out your severity and then provide treatments based on that severity.

Start the test here.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jan 24, 2018.

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