Many of us have nervous habits, whether it’s foot tapping, hair twirling, nail biting, or anxiety eating. Yes, that’s right. For many people, eating is an attempt to soothe a sense of nervousness.
Let’s unwrap the process to understand why nervous eating habits develop and how we can change them.
Why Am I Nervous Eating?
First, nervousness refers to the fact that there some level of anxiety present. Nervous eating is an attempt to soothe that anxiety. In essence, it’s emotional eating — turning to food to help us cope.
Learning how to deal with emotional eating is possible and the sooner, the better. The process of emotional eating usually starts long before it becomes any kind of nervous eating disorder. In a way, it’s like self-medication. But the longer it goes on, the more dependent a person might become on it, which could lead to a deeper problem such as binge eating disorder.
Feeling nervous can range from anxiety to panic attacks or just lower grade “jitters”. The bottom line is that these feelings aren’t pleasant. It doesn’t feel good to have an ungrounded, butterfly feeling, and it certainly doesn’t feel good to be in the midst of an anxiety attack. The nervous habits we develop serve to distract us from those feelings.
Take the Quiz: If you want to know where you fall on the emotional/binge eating continuum, try taking this self-scoring quiz.
It’s helpful to understand, too, that nervousness is a type of emotion that tends to carry a lot of energy behind it, as opposed to an emotion like sadness or boredom, which carries much less energy. The best way to alleviate an uncomfortable, high energy emotion is to combat it with opposite action – to do something that brings the energy down.
This is often why people who experience anxiety appear to move a lot. Movement is an effort to release energy. As a matter of fact, anxiety disorders often visually look very similar to attention deficit disorders because of the constant movement. But with anxiety the movement stops when the anxiety lessens.
How Eating When Anxious Works
Eating activates the parts of the brain that are associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response. As soon as we start eating, we begin shifting into a state of relaxation on some level.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is a very desirable human quality. When we are relaxed, we can better digest, absorb and utilize the food and nutrients we eat. But over time, it has come to serve another function, too — reducing stress.
When we’re stressed, the benefit of the relaxation response is clear. And stress eating is one of the most familiar ways to call it into action.
How to Stop Nervous Eating Habits
You can change nervous eating habits, and I suggest below how to deal with emotional eating.
But depending on how nervous you are as well as the intensity of your nervous eating experiences, you may benefit from professional help. If you’re struggling with binge eating and high levels of anxiety or panic, working with a trained mental health provider who understands these issues can be incredibly healing and often an essential component to overcoming these behaviors.
Therapy for binge eating disorder and anxiety disorders entail one or a combination of cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, as well as other modalities to aid in healing.
As a clinical mental health counselor for many years, specializing in anxiety disorders as well as binge eating disorder, my professional “bias” is towards interventions that include a mindfulness component. Mindfulness provides a moment-by-moment awareness that allows people to understand their emotional state as it is occurring, as well as gain trust in themselves and the skills to be able to manage and cope with the emotion.
That said, you may not be dealing with a clinically diagnosable binge eating or anxiety disorder, but instead “simply” nervous eating. If that’s the case, then essentially what works best is to address the high energy state of anxiety or nervousness with something that lowers it.
That starts with the simple question: “what calms me?”
Ways to Deal With Anxious Eating
- a hot bath
- a massage
- listening to relaxing music
- lavender candles or essential oils
- watching the waves at the ocean
- basking in the sun
- snuggling a pet
Just as much as eating can be somewhat relaxing, so can some of the activities listed above. I call activities like these “twinkle lights.” They’re activities that gently light up the pleasure centers of our brains. I compare them to less gentle ways of doing that, such as binge eating which floods the pleasure centers…until it doesn’t anymore because it becomes a source of pain. Lots of twinkle lights in our daily lives help eliminate the urge or need to flood ourselves with pleasure.
Call the energy-releasing power of other activities into play, too. Consider:
- a brisk walk
- sun salutations (yoga)
- dancing to fun music
- any type of movement that pleases you
Self Compassion Is Key
Lastly, it’s important to remember that nervous eating is a very common habit. There’s no need to be hard on ourselves for doing it because turning to food does relax us to an extent.
I like to remind my clients: “It works…until it doesn’t.” By adding to our repertoire of soothing strategies, eating doesn’t have to carry the full load.
Here at Green Mountain at Fox Run, our innovative program has been helping women develop a broad repertoire of self-care tools for 44 years. Our Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating complements Green Mountain’s immersive program, by offering women a unique, state-of-the-art clinical program where women can look more deeply into their eating behavior, whether it’s emotional eating, emotional overeating, or binge eating.
Immersing yourself into our experiential programs can be an excellent way to uncover the root of your struggles, while learning new ways to address them.