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Better Ways to Manage Anxiety Than Eating

On the whole, disregulated eaters are people with high anxiety. In fact, I’d guess that many of you would qualify for the diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Anxiety is manageable, however, so here are some ways to chill you out rather than eat. None of them will come as a surprise, so consider them just a simple reminder.

Although you might think of exercise as an activity that jazzes you up, it’s actually a great way to calm yourself down. According to Sweating away all that anxiety (Sarasota Herald Tribune, Health and Fitness, 10/30/12), “Studies published by the American Psychological Association show that exercise improves the body’s ability to cope with stress. People who exercise also have lower rates of anxiety and depression” because “exercise spurs the creation of norepinephrine, which acts as a brain stress ‘buffer,’ keeping levels of epinephrine and cortisol, two stress hormones, under control.”

Does exercise mean you must suit up and head for the gym or the track? Not at all. It could mean blasting the radio and doing jumping jacks or dancing the Watusi (for those of you who recall what that is!), taking a brisk walk outside, gardening, or climbing up and down your stairs for five minutes. Imagine automatically thinking about moving your body when you’re stressed or anxious rather than eating. Consider what reminders will help you move in that direction rather than toward the refrigerator. Exercise also helps you sleep better—just don’t do it right before bedtime—so that you get a good night’s sleep which helps regulate hunger and satiation hormones.

When you’re anxious, try a quick relaxation exercise by tightening and relaxing parts of your body. Do it sitting in a chair or lying down. This is not hard work, but the pay off is a near instant drop in anxiety. I see it when clients enter my office frantic or frazzled. If I take them through a five-minute body relaxation, when they open their eyes, they’re calmer and more present. Don’t want to put the energy into activity or doing a relaxation exercise? How about deep breathing? Really, there’s nothing simpler. You’re already breathing, so it’s not as if you have to learn a new behavior. Just s-l-o-w…i-t…d-o-w-n by mindfully inhaling calming air and exhaling your tensions. Focus attention on your breath and gently push out other thoughts from your mind.

The truth is that you’re still turning to rather than away from food when you’re anxious because you’re not taking other actions to calm yourself down. Push yourself to do a new activity. Give it two or three weeks of practice and it will become more automatic.