Can stress make you lose weight? In moderation, stress can motivate us to take action or help us perform at a higher level. Whether it be confronting a demanding boss, having to give an important presentation at work or studying for a difficult exam, we all face the daily pressures of life. It’s okay as long as we know how to cope with these hiccups.
The issue arises when we spend our days feeling constantly stressed, chasing a never-ending cycle of deadlines, responsibilities and fires to put out. This built-up tension burns through our inner resources, making us increasingly overwhelmed, worried or too anxious to eat. Left unaddressed, this might result in further health problems, such as fatigue, nausea, knotted stomach, weight loss, bodily pains, insomnia or even depression and anxiety.
Can Stress Make You Lose Weight?
It’s Friday evening. You’ve had a long week at the office, filled with back-to-back meetings and finishing an important project before its deadline. Now, you’re in your car, stuck in traffic, running late to a dinner date with your partner.
You become increasingly stressed, worrying about their reaction, and you can feel the weight of the built-up tension from this week on your chest. Your palms become sweaty, your heart’s racing, and your breath’s shorter.
By the time you arrive at the dinner, your stomach is knotted up, and your appetite is gone. Eating food is the last thing on your mind.
The Stress Response
Such bodily reaction is commonly known as the stress response. It happens whenever you’re confronted with stimuli your mind perceives as an actual or potential danger. In this case, arriving late to a date, seen as a threat to your relationship, triggers your body’s fight or flight response by releasing stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. They suppress your hunger and increase your metabolism, often breaking down your fat tissue, aiming to boost your body’s ability to face this life-threatening situation. Even if your partner doesn’t get mad at you and treats you empathetically, the stress response is already in motion.
The Impact of Chronic Stress
If you’re experiencing this often enough, your body doesn’t get the chance to fully recover, stuck in a state of hyperstimulation. In this case, it’s common to struggle with chronic stress and its negative consequences, such as:
- weight loss,
- appetite changes,
- increased nausea,
- stomach issues, i.e. diarrhea, bloating, acid reflux,
- fatigue, low mood and energy
- higher risk of developing anxiety and depression
- a potential flare-up of chronic conditions, i.e. IBD – Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
If you experience anxiety an weight loss despite eating and you unintentionally lost 5% or more of your weight in the last 6-12 months, consider contacting your doctor and doing some bloodwork. While you might think your weight loss is linked to stress, there might be an underlying medical cause, such as a hormonal imbalance caused by hyperthyroidism, which speeds up your metabolism, making you feel hungry more often and lose weight fast.
Stress-Related Eating Patterns and Weight
Think about the last time you were stressed or worried about something important like passing a driver’s license, having an interview for your dream job or getting ready for a first date with your love interest. Among other coping ways, you might have found certain foods helpful or quite the opposite; no part of you was interested in eating then.
We all have different stress-related eating patterns . While some of us reach for “comfort foods” – high-calorie, fatty, sugary, or salty snacks – others feel nauseous at the thought of any food. If you belong to the former group, in stressful times, you might be prone to eating to soothe your emotional states rather than satisfy hunger.
This tendency, called emotional eating, while helpful in the short-term, bringing temporary relief, can turn out to be quite harmful in the long run as it creates the mood-food-weight vicious cycle:
- This habit is usually triggered by uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, sadness, loneliness, or anger, which appear due to unpleasant events, such as a conflict with your partner, work-related stress, or a health problem.
- At the moment, instead of coping with these feelings, you might choose to turn to comfort food to soothe you, yet you often end up overeating.
- Sometime later, your emotions return with the added weight of the shame, frustration, or guilt you put on yourself for overeating.
- These same emotions can push you towards emotional eating, causing weight gain in the long run too.
Body Image, Weight Loss and Anxiety
Can anxiety make you lose weight?
This answer is not so black and white since there are many factors to consider, as explained above. Yet, if you already have some issues with your food preferences or body image, anxiety can definitely exacerbate that, causing you to:
- become hyper-focused and significantly concerned about your weight or the way your body looks,
- feel inadequate and not good enough in your own skin,
- struggle with low self-esteem,
- fall into restrictive eating habits,
- develop tendency to emotionally overeat.
Strategies for Managing Stress-Induced Weight Loss
Stress can make you lose weight fast. Fortunately, there are many simple steps you can take today to start supporting your overall well-being and overcoming this issue for good.
Activate Your Senses
Excessive worrying can cause weight loss as it narrows down your focus and makes you ruminate or fixate on a small aspect of your reality. You can quickly manage that by broadening your attention and noticing different parts of the present moment.
Next time you realise you’ve been so stressed out that you forgot to eat a meal, stop for a moment. Take a couple of deep breaths and calm your brain with this simple mindfulness technique:
- Start by choosing one thing you can see in your surroundings. That could be your desk, a glass of water or a cloudy sky you’re observing through your window. Whatever it is, start describing it to yourself, and notice the colours of this object, the textures, movement, shape, etc.
- Then move on to your sense of hearing. List all the noises you can register, from the muffled sound of a conversation between your colleagues at work, through the clacking of the keyboard to the noises coming from the street.
- Try activating your touch by noticing the feeling of your clothes against your skin, scanning your body or asking a friend for a hug.
- Perhaps you can notice a specific smell in the room you’re in. You may want to self-soothe by lighting an aromatic candle.
- Finally, ground yourself with your sense of taste. Think of a delicious dish you ate a while ago and revisit its rich flavour.
Use Your Breath
Since triggering stressors can activate your sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones, it’s critical to counteract it by activating PNS – your parasympathetic nervous system. One of the fastest ways to do so is with diaphragmatic breathing:
- Breathe in through your nose, slowly counting to 4.
- Hold your breath, counting to 3.
- Breathe out through your nose, slowly counting to 8.
- Before inhaling again, pause counting to 3.
- Then inhale through your nose, repeating the cycle minimum 5 times.
Practice this exercise when you’re anxious and as a part of your daily routine since it’s proven highly beneficial for your health .
Introduce a Healthy Routine
While it might seem obvious when stressed, we tend to ignore or forget to meet our bodies’ basic needs. If you’re going through a rough patch, focus on building a healthy routine, which prioritises 3 elements:
1. Good Sleeping Habits:
- follow a consistent sleeping schedule,
- avoid using your phone right before bed/after waking up,
- try to block sources of noise and light in your bedroom.
2. A Balanced Diet:
- avoid drinking coffee or eating foods that are high in sugar, sodium or fat as they might make you more anxious after the energy crash,
- when stressed, try eating smaller meals more often or snacks rich in protein, healthy carbs or magnesium, i.e.:
- nuts and seeds
3. Regular Movement:
- working out has been proven to help with stress, anxiety, depression, low mood or low self-esteem 
- you can start slow by walking around the block whenever you’re stressed and including restful physical activity like yoga before going to bed.
Get Professional Help
Anxiety can often grow to a degree where it’s taking over your life, interfering with your ability to fulfill your daily responsibilities, making you feel as if it’s an unmanageable condition. If you’ve been losing weight due to stress or anxiety, remember that you don’t have to face this difficulty alone.
Receiving professional help from an experienced anxiety therapist can help you:
- gain insight into the connection between your mind and your body,
- discuss uncomfortable emotions or painful experiences in a safe space,
- learn tools and techniques useful in counteracting the negative effects of stress.
Start taking charge of your life by contacting us for a free 15-minute consultation to see if our services fit your unique needs.
You can contact us and request a free 15 min consultation to see whether our help will suit your needs.