Why Being Hungry Makes You Anxious + 4 Ways To Deal With It

Clinical psychologist By Susan Albers, Psy.D.
Clinical psychologist
Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a New York Times bestselling author and a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns, and mindfulness.
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My husband says that whenever I feel hungry, I always feel the urge to announce it to the world. He has a point. I do say, "Oh my gosh, I'm so hungry!" like it's an emergency. It's almost like I panic a little.

But really ask yourself, when you get hungry, do you:

  • Think, "Oh, no! I'm hungry. Now what? I have no idea what to eat."
  • Feel anxious and begin to fret about what to eat.
  • Think about what sounds really good and yummy. I daydream about this for a while.
  • Calmly come up with a plan based on what food is available and sounds good to me.

I remember going to an afternoon wedding outdoors in late June. Like many weddings, there was a big gap between the ceremony and the following reception. It was too long not to eat anything. And what if we got to the reception and we didn't get anything to eat for two more hours, until it was an appropriate dinnertime? Also, it was likely that the drinks from cocktail hour would make me sleepy without something solid in my stomach.

And I started to get something I call "hangxiety" about what we would do between the wedding and the reception. I wanted to enjoy the wedding. But I knew that we would be a grumpy mess if I didn't figure out a solid strategy.

Sound familiar? Many of my clients struggle with hangxiety, too.

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What is hangxiety?

Simply put, hangxiety is when hunger makes you feel anxious. Sometimes you might be just a little anxious. You might feel a little flutter in your heart or fret a little bit about what there is to eat: "What do I have? There is nothing good." Other times, hangxiety can lead to a full-on meltdown. And it may not happen only when you're hungry. For some of my clients, even thinking about the fact that they might get hungry can give them hangxiety.

Hangxiety can be so intense that people just don't want to deal with it. And research indicates that this makes sense from a biological perspective. In cave-man times, hunger was a huge, real problem. It meant you had to go hunting or scavenging. And if you didn't find something, you might go hungry for days.

In a modern context, around the world and in places close to all our homes, people still go hungry because food is not available. So in some contexts, hunger is associated with very real emergencies, crises, or famines. Don't be hard on yourself if getting hungry makes you feel panicky. That feeling is rooted in something real.

What brings on hangxiety?

Some hangxiety comes from the fact that once you realize you're hungry, you have to make a decision. And knowing what to do isn't always easy.

The bad news is that people who feel hangxiety often eat as a way to manage their anxiety level. They nibble and munch to calm their nerves. And that's not always the best decision—though it is understandable.

What I have learned from working with people who have anxiety—any kind of anxiety—is that having an escape plan reduces your anxiety tremendously. For example, someone who is anxious about going to a graduation party can get a lot of relief by plotting out how they can gracefully leave if they feel overwhelmed. And because they know they can leave, they often don't. Just knowing they have a plan helps them relax and enjoy the whole situation more.

The same can apply with hangxiety. If you have a strategy in place for avoiding hangxiety, you can skip both anxious eating and being paralyzed by what to do when hunger hits!

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How to get from hangry to happy:

  1. Give yourself a break. If you get hangxiety when you're hungry, that's OK. Remind yourself that the feeling of hunger is a normal and natural feeling. Don't waste time feeling bad when you could be thinking about what to do next.
  2. Get comfortable with hunger. Work on getting comfortable with little bits of hunger. A twinge of hunger might make you uncomfortable, but it won't really hurt you. Sit with it, so you can learn from it. Notice where the discomfort of hunger arises in your body. Experiment with different time frames between eating to see what various levels of hunger feel like.
  3. Learn the difference. Sometimes we confuse hunger and anxiety. So pay attention to when and where you feel anxiety in your body. What lets you know you're feeling anxious? Do you breathe fast? Clench your teeth? Something else? Pay attention, and make sure you know the difference between anxiety and hunger. Anxiety shows up in more ways—such as a rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing. Hunger is mostly centered in your stomach, energy level, mood, and thoughts about food.
  4. Have a hangxiety plan. Create a decision tree about what you can do to manage hunger when you feel it, or what I call the "If X, then Y" plan. Make a list of possible scenarios and how to manage them. For example, one of my personal plans is, If I get hungry for a snack while driving, I will pull over and eat the bag of almonds I keep stashed in my armrest. I don't worry about getting hungry because I know a handful of these almonds is a healthy option to get me by for the moment. Along with your plans to deal with hunger, make a plan for when you feel anxious. Start by taking slow, deep breaths to calm down your fight-or-flight response—then decide what will work best to calm your anxiety.

Excerpted from Hanger Management, copyright © 2019 by Susan Albers, Psy.D. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

The views expressed in this article are those of one expert. They are the opinions of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of mindbodygreen, nor do they represent the complete picture of the topic at hand. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

And are you ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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