There is a strong relationship between anxiety and weight gain. Especially during the months surrounding COVID-19, there has been increased attention given to this phenomenon. There are several reasons why anxiety can lead to weight gain, weight gain can lead to anxiety, and then the vicious cycle can go on and on.
In our culture, we are taught that anxiety is an emotion that is painful and uncomfortable. When there is uncertainty or chaos, we feel unease and we want to soothe the discomfort. Eating will always be an easy, convenient, and quick way to do that. It’s fine to use food to comfort ourselves on occasion. After all, the first time in our lives that we expressed any uneasy (e.g., crying as a baby), we were usually met with a bottle. Thus, many of us associate eating and food with comfort and soothing from a young age, and this continues into adulthood. However, when eating is the ONLY way that we are soothing our anxiety, we are likely to gain weight and then create more problems for ourselves.
Additionally, it is well-known that high levels of anxiety and stress lead to increased cortisol production, and having high cortisol makes it more difficult to lose weight once one has gained. Our cells become less sensitive to glucose and we are more likely to store fat in a state of constant anxiety. Thus, maintaining high levels of anxiety (levels that may have increased because of the weight gain that resulted from the overeating) may contribute to stubbornness when it comes to weight loss.
At Structure House, we work with our participants to learn alternative ways to manage anxiety so that food is not always the only tool in the toolbox. We offer training in meditation, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. Additionally, the robust fitness programming that we provide on campus (and teach participants how to continue at home) is another powerful way to manage one’s anxiety. When we are experiencing tension emotionally, discharging through physical activity is a research-proven way to buffer its effects.
Anxiety and weight gain does not have to be a vicious cycle. At Structure House, we can support our participants in finding a better way to deal with life’s often chaotic twists and turns.