The Anxiety–Overeating–Depression Cycle

by | Aug 2, 2012

You\’re anxious, you stress-eat, depression sets in. How do you break the cycle?

Eating is one of the toughest addictions. We all have to eat, so it\’s not possible to avoid being around food. But some of us have a hard time controlling our input, and we give our bodies what they seem to want, rather than what they need.

When we hear the term “eating disorder,” many of us think anorexia or bulimia. But simple overeating in response to stress—stress-eating—is one of the most common eating disorders, especially in America, where food is plentiful. There\’s also the problem that much of the food available is not suited for a healthy diet and lifestyle.

If you are looking to break the overeating cycle, the first thing to look at is what is actually happening and why. Understanding your deeper motivations can help you limit their effects over time. People overeat for a lot of reasons, including:

  • Filling the emptiness. If you have been starved for love or affection—either chronically or in recent times—you may look to food—too much of it—to fill the void. And maybe for a few minutes you\’ll feel full or satisfied in some vague way. But after all that food is digested, you will still feel empty—and unloved. A better solution is to begin to learn to love yourself more, to nurture your soul more effectively. Depression counseling can put you on a path to improve your self-esteem and reduce the compulsion to fill up on food. As a bonus, you become a more attractive person to love.
  • Numbing. You may have unresolved issues, accompanied by feelings of sadness, grief, anger, frustration, disappointment, and many other feelings. These emotions are tough to face, especially alone, and in some cases, you can spend a lifetime trying to avoid them. The high levels of sugar, salt, and other substances that constantly enter your bloodstream when you overeat can be like intravenous drugs that tranquilize us. The short-term effect is to placate for a few minutes or hours. The long-term effect is to rob you of your real feelings, your ability to ultimately face your issues in life, and to experience life at its fullest and healthiest.
  • Childhood models. Often, overeating runs in the family. Did your family always prepare too much food for a meal—or just the right amount? Did they have rules about eating everything on the plate, not wasting anything? Did people around you finish other people\’s food after finishing their own? Was eating between meals or in front of the TV a family habit? Did people order too much to eat at restaurants? We can replace these rules with more sensible ones, such as eating more slowly, not eating any more when you know you\’ve had enough, or looking up a restaurant\’s menu on the Internet and making your selections before you get there.
  • Too much life stress. Even people who have managed their eating habits well in the past can turn to compulsive eating when stresses reach the breaking point. In these cases, sorting out priorities, developing a plan to reduce the stress points, and having a professional to support you during the process can help. Anxiety counseling brings a wealth of experience, expertise, and sensitivity to this process.
  • Addiction substitute. Are you substituting one addiction for another? For example, if you\’ve stopped smoking recently, you may want to increase your exercise, stay busy outside the home, and avoid restaurants through the day. Being active and planning healthy snacks between meals, such as fruit, nuts, or cheese, can help you steer clear of the weight increases many tobacco quitters experience.
  • Issue avoidance. Is there a specific issue in your life that you mask and avoid by overeating? For example, if your marriage has dulled over time, is eating a substitute for affection, fun, or sex? If that\’s the case, Orange County Couples and Marriage Counseling can help you address your issues directly and decrease your dependency on food as a compensation.

Regardless of the cause, there are a number of strategies that you can use to address your compulsive eating and move toward a healthier life.

  • Avoid addictive foods. Some foods, such as simple sugars, go into the bloodstream quickly and produce effects that are often difficult to limit. You begin to crave more and more and eating such foods becomes a high-frequency habit. High blood sugar can alter your mood, creating a vicious cycle in which you crave more to improve your mood. In these cases, you have forgotten how good you felt when you were eating right and your blood sugar was normal. In recent years, doctors and dietitians have come to realize that excessive carbohydrates is a major cause of obesity and poor health. They still recommend limiting the amount and types of fat, but also recommend paying close attention to carbs.
  • Eat good foods. Change your eating habits. There is no other way. Like to snack every day on chips, ice cream, or cake? Switch to cheese, nuts, and fruits as afternoon snacks and eat the dessert-type snacks on special occasions only, and then in small amounts. Eat lean meats often, and limit your portions and frequency of starchy foods, such as potatoes and pasta. Learn to love the delicious, creative salads out there. You don\’t have to give everything up forever. Just opt for healthier foods in your daily habits.
  • Avoid compulsive dieting. Don\’t replace the eating compulsion with the dieting compulsion. If you can count calories comfortably and that eases your mind, find a balanced diet using that method. If counting gets you anxious, find a balanced diet that emphasizes the types of foods you eat, rather than the amounts.
  • Eat a healthy diet forever. I\’m not in the business of recommending a specific diet, but there are tried and true guidelines. Opt for quality over quantity. Go out less frequently, but when you do, go to a place that serves delicious, creative, or exotic foods, and have a memorable, satisfying experience. Split dessert among multiple people and enjoy the fine coffees and teas served at many good restaurants. These are just a few of the many ideas that can lead to a healthier life. The key is to consistently choose foods good for the body and mind.

To help you through these processes, get help and support. Changing your life is not easy, and having a counselor as a partner in the journey can make all the difference.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here:


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