Feeling Hungry and Panicked? The Link Between Dieting and Anxiety

Relaxation

4:00 p.m. I am suddenly aware of my heartbeat. It feels more insistent than normal. Is it faster? Is it jagged? Am I out of breath?

I try to reason with myself: I’ve just done a brisk walk pushing the stroller over some hills.

My anxiety responds: Those hills were awhile back… you wouldn’t be out of breath from that.

Anxiety sufferers have a heightened sense of, well, a lot of things. For me, I am acutely aware of shifts in sensation in my body.

Having practiced and taught yoga for most of my life contributes to this, and in many ways, it’s a great skill. I instinctively check in with my shoulders—are they up around my ears? Then my jaw—are my top teeth away from my bottom teeth? And perhaps the most important of all—am I holding my breath? I can’t help but observe when people walk with an imbalanced gait or sit with their spines slouched.

But the heightened awareness is also pathological. A slight tingling in my hand instantly makes me think heart attack. Dizziness, which I ended up learning was caused by my vision changing, made me run to get screened for a brain tumor.

4:30 p.m. I’m at the library with my two-year-old daughter. I still feel weird—“off.” I periodically place my hand on my chest—is my heart beating more intensely than normal? It seems normal. But what if it’s not normal?

I press my hand into myself harder, searching for something to panic about. I find comfort in the two librarians a few feet away. I think, “If I have a heart attack, they’ll keep my daughter safe. They’ll call 911.” 

I check in with my breath. It feels reassuring that I can take deep, unencumbered breaths.

5:00 p.m. My eight-year-old son offers to look after his little sister. I feel like I need to lie down, to calm the strange rhythm of my heart. Something reminds me that I have leftovers from last night’s dinner.

I made a really delicious Thai larb gai. It is a “safe” meal of ground turkey, vegetables, and rice. I hope my family didn’t notice that I avoided eating the rice last night.

I reheat the leftovers, including a spoonful of rice. I am careful to avoid eating any rice—starch is bad, my disordered thinking will never let me forget. I take my first bite and burst into tears.

A few months ago, this pattern of crying started when I would finally eat after going too many hours without food. It would catch me by surprise because I hadn’t intentionally been avoiding food. I hadn’t intentionally been punishing myself. It would just happen.

I’d miss breakfast because mornings are busy. A coffee would usually follow, masking my body’s ability to communicate its hunger—my hunger.

I typically only have three hours to myself without any kids, three hours to do way more than is possible during that timeframe. I can’t possibly waste that time eating. And then once I reunite with my kids, my own needs all but get completely forgotten.

On these types of days, when I would finally take a bite of something, almost always around 5:00 p.m., the tears would rush up and out.

Why was I crying over a bite of chicken breast?

Eating my leftover larb gai, I wonder, when did I last eat? 9:00 a.m. with a friend. It is 5:00 p.m. now. An eight-hour window.

“But I ate my daughter’s leftover applesauce!” I hear myself say. I instantly recognize this rationalization. The voice of the disorder.

I realize I am once again inside the well-worn grooves of avoiding eating. I cry because my body is relieved it is getting sustenance. I cry because I am angry that I am still beholden.

I try to work out what happened. It has been a busy day. But when is it not a busy day? This is not an excuse.

At breakfast, I noticed that the person next to me was eating avocado toast, but she had scraped the avocado off the bread. Because bread is bad, my disordered thinking affirmed.

I scanned the menu and noticed that the calories were listed next to each item. I don’t normally count calories. I try to focus on the description of each menu item and decide that Papa’s Breakfast Bowl sounds great: roasted potatoes, bourbon bacon jam, a sunny-side-up egg, and sliced avocado served with chipotle aioli. I would ask for no jam or aioli, obviously, but otherwise, this is a meal I would easily make myself.

And then I saw the calories: 1100. 1100?! I panic.

My friend arrived and asked what I was going to have. I casually said, “I’ll probably just have an omelet.”

This friend is one of those women who pops out babies and bounces back. I don’t know how she does it—maybe it’s just genetic—but her body holds no visible remnants of having made babies. She was wearing skinny jeans and a fitted sweater; there are no rolls, her arms are firm and slender.

I held my arms across my stubbornly squishy stomach. I calculated that her baby is younger than mine, but she is in much better shape. I didn’t know that I was doing it, but I chastised myself for being bigger than I used to be, than I should be. I deserved some sort of punishment for this failing, my evident gluttony and certain laziness. 

I didn’t register when she told me, “You look amazing. What workouts are you doing these days?” My disordered, dysmorphic brain told me, “She’s just saying that to be nice because she feels sorry for how horrible you actually look.”

Another friend has unwittingly become my eating disorder sponsor. I send her a confessional text: “Dang it. I ate at 9 a.m. And then I didn’t eat for eight hours. I didn’t even realize how long it had been until I took my first bite and teared up.”

We’ve talked about what the crying signifies. We both know it’s meaningful, pointing to some lesson.

It is in talking to her that I put it all together. The 1100 calories. The scraped avocado toast. My slender friend.

I also realize I had been triggered by another friend who had recently stayed with us. She does intermittent fasting, and she is an example that it works because she is an enviable (to me) size 0. My ED brain is so eager to jump on any restrictive, rule-based eating regimen. “See? She avoids eating and look at the result! Don’t you want to be a size 0 again?”

But I also have an inner voice of wisdom. This is the voice that reminded me that nourishing myself so I could breastfeed was more important than losing the baby weight quickly. This is also the voice that instantaneously gets silenced when my eating disorder asserts itself.

My visiting friend touted the benefits of intermittent fasting, “Our bodies aren’t meant to eat constantly. When we were cavemen, we didn’t have refrigerators and pantries.” She claimed, “My organs function better when they are free from having to digest food.” (Sounds ideal, but how does she know this is true?) She reasoned, “And when I do eat, I eat anything! Of course I always eat healthy foods, but I don’t avoid bread, as long as it’s good, artisanal bread, and I’ll have a pudding if I feel like it.”

My eating disorder: You need to do this too.

My inner wisdom: Any controlled eating is a slippery slope to starvation for you. Focus on three meals of day, that’s it. That’s your work. 

After I connect the dots of all these triggers and finish my leftovers, I promptly pass out on the couch, still sitting upright. I am relieved I (probably) am not having a heart attack and I need a minute to absorb it all.

They say that you never recover from an eating disorder. You are in recovery. It is an active state that requires your conscious awareness and participation.

In that sense, it seems no different to being an alcoholic. An alcoholic can’t just have one drink. They may struggle if they’re around people who are drinking. It may feel like an invisible force is pulling them to that ice cold beer or elegant glass of wine.

I feel this invisible force, too. Except for me, it is pulling me toward starvation, deprivation, urging me to shrink into nothingness, to zero.

But the cost is simply too high. I do not want to forgo my mental steadiness and inner ease for a smaller number on the scale or on my clothes. I’ve been there before, and it was not worth it.

And for me, there is a clear correlation between starving myself and anxiety. I’ve learned that anxiety is actually the voice of wisdom, my inner child, piping up to grab my attention, reminding me to take care of myself.

No, it’s not a heart attack, it’s not even a panic attack, it’s just—you’re hungry! You forgot about you. You’ve been criticizing yourself for being too big, for looking different to how you looked pre-motherhood or when you were eighteen. You’re not eighteen! And what a gift that is, to be given this opportunity to live, to age. To have children. 

And they, my children, really are a huge motivation for me. I see how they take everything in, especially from us, their parents. I know how much I unconsciously absorbed from my mother. Babies are not born hating their thighs; you learn to hate your thighs.

I know I cannot control everything in my children’s lives and psyches but my actions, my behavior, the way I talk about myself—these things I can control.

I want my children to experience joy and gratefulness in the food we are all lucky enough to eat. I want them to get to know flavors, to have fun cooking, and to revel in shared meals with loved ones. I love when I make something that they love that they know their mommy made for them. Even if it’s just mac and cheese out of a box; I’ll take it when my son exclaims that nobody makes better mac and cheese than his mom does. (I do sometimes add toppings!)

I do not want to be at the whim of my weight. I do not want to fear food. I most certainly do not want to pass any of this on to my children.

So I will keep fighting for freedom. Freedom to eat—and enjoy!—three meals a day. Freedom to eat the damn bread (I ate the rice that was with my leftovers, by the way). Freedom, even, to make mistakes because these habits are deeply embedded, and the freedom to then celebrate the remembering, realizing, and resetting.

I don’t know if this is the case for other people with anxiety, but I would invite you to take a look at any possible connections between your eating habits and symptoms of anxiety, particularly if you are prone to dieting.

If you restrict your eating by skipping meals or by enforcing a tight eating window and you happen to find yourself experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depletion, zoom out and consider the bigger picture. Are you truly taking care of yourself?

We are complex, layered beings and all the different facets of who we are intermingle and influence each other. It’s not just segregated compartments of well-being. Physical health and mental health are inextricably linked.

Anxiety makes me feel untethered, shaky, uncertain, and afraid. Having that on empty exacerbates it all. I have no body or brain fuel to process it.

Those tears that erupt with that first bite of food after denying myself—they ground me in relief, offer release, and ultimately, are a practice of compassion for myself. I wish good health and food freedom for us all. Because we are worth being fed, nourished, and sustained.

About Leah Kim

Leah Kim taught yoga for fifteen years after studying english and economics at UCLA. As Nike’s Global Yoga Ambassador for a decade, she taught classes and led events all over the world. After becoming a mother, Leah was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, and eating disorders. Through therapy, she confronted deeply buried pain and recovered from acute symptoms. She now writes about mental health, motherhood, and racial justice on her blog, www.on-motherhood.com. IG: @leahsoojinkim

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