Are You Eating Your Anxiety Right Now?

I have spent almost twenty years practicing medicine and I bet there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t had to talk someone down from a place of anxiety.  It’s part of the job of doctoring. Some people are anxious. Some people are just wound more tightly. That has always been the normal in my life. However, in the past two weeks, suddenly everyone is struggling with anxiety.  Everyone is on edge. Everyone is in constant “fight or flight” mode.  

I get it.  As someone that tends toward anxiety, I understand it.  All of a sudden, we are dealing with something that we have no frame of reference.  This is brand new – and unknown – and unknown is scary. Even for those of us in medicine – that are trained to deal with sudden, unexpected events with high stakes, this is scary. 

I don’t watch the news –  I can’t stand it. I can’t stand sensationalism and drama.  I can’t stand a profession that profits off of scaring people and causing outrage and strife.  I also do my best to stay off social media as much as possible. As someone running a business, I need to be on periodically to connect with my patients, but I can’t stand the idea of scrolling through miles and miles of text and pictures each day, trying to extract a few small nuggets of valuable information.   I usually rely on my kids to tell me if something important is going on in the world. It’s probably not the most socially responsible way of staying up to date, but it’s how I’ve managed to stay sane and keep my anxiety in check the past few years. By avoiding news and social media ranting, I have been able to avoid getting riled up day after day – about things that I can’t change.  

However, since this pandemic pulled the rug out from under us, I have found myself scrolling through my phone more and more – trying to understand what is happening and what to expect as this continues to progress.  As someone that still spends time working in an inpatient hospital setting, it is incredibly relevant to me and my family. And what I’ve found is that I can get completely sucked into the drama of the situation – and I can lose a lot of time scrolling through reports from the doctors over in Italy as well as the constantly updated protocols and recommendations being handed down by the CDC and local hospitals.  And the longer I spend scrolling, the higher my anxiety goes.  

I recently started looking around at various groups on Facebook that I belong to – groups that I’ve never had much interaction with.  However, these are collections of people that I have things in common with – groups of moms, groups of doctors, groups of business owners, etc. Once I got into those spaces, it confirmed that it’s not just my patients that are feeling anxious – it’s pretty much everyone in the country that has the slightest clue about what is going on.

And frequently, following a post about being terrified about the possibility of a mask shortage or the demise of their business, these women often post things about how they went and ate cheesecake or cookies to alleviate their anxiety.  Then follows a self-loathing post and a cry for help in resisting the temptation to repeat the behavior again.  

We have loads of data about stress relief.  We know that exercise and good sleep and meditation all help to dramatically improve anxiety and nervousness.   This isn’t secret knowledge. It’s not being kept from the general public. It’s out there – and it’s compelling data.   However, despite the strength of the association, most people choose something else. When confronted with these extreme negative emotions, most people choose something that has not been shown to cause sustained improvement in anxiety and other negative emotions.  Most people choose unhealthy food to alleviate their anxiety – even though they know that it only provides a short-term fix – often with the obligatory guilt, shame and self-loathing that often follows.  

So why do we eat our anxiety?   Why do we crave a short-term fix w/ subsequent negative emotions when we are trying to feel better?  

Rewind back a few weeks ago when I wrote about dopamine.  Dopamine is our pleasure hormone – not our happiness hormone – but our pleasure hormone.  It’s a quick fix – a rush – a bandaid. When we are using food to try and soothe our anxiety, we are essentially abusing food to get away from our negative emotions – like an addict would use their substance of choice to get away.  Recognizing this and acknowledging it are the first steps in fixing the behavior. Once we recognize what we are doing, we can start to try and adjust our behavior.

The next step in changing it is to make a list of other things that we can do in those moments that will also improve our mood.  It may be something simple, like changing our environment – stepping outside for a few minutes and decompressing. Even better, take a quick walk (staying away from other neighbors that might be doing the same thing!)  For some, it might involve giving yourself five minutes to play a stupid game on your phone that makes you happy. I like to go to VRBO.com and search out beach houses – and lose myself in the idea of lounging on one of those covered decks reading a book and vegging out.  Some of you might shop to alleviate your anxiety – although I would caution you to put items in your cart and revisit them later as impulse buying creates the same cycle as impulse eating – just in another facet of your life!

Once the urge to blast your dopamine is over, you can return back to normal life.  Then, once you have conquered that a few times, sit down and brainstorm ways to improve your serotonin – because the more of that we have, the less we seek out the dopamine rushes – which is an even better solution than playing candy crush twenty times every day. 

Serotonin is the contentment hormone.  It’s happiness – not pleasure. Serotonin comes from connecting with people.  It comes from taking walks with your dog. It comes from being with a dog. It comes from eating well.  It comes from helping other people. It comes from being needed and useful and from having a purpose. It comes from hugging other people.  Some of these things you may be able to do right now and some of them you can’t.  

Do what you can and then do some new things to help increase your serotonin levels.  If you can’t take a walk, sit by the window and get some fresh air. If you don’t have a dog, watch some cute dog videos on youtube.  Take some deep breaths a few times per day. Find a yoga video (not power yoga taught by a fitness instructor, but restorative yoga – designed to feed your soul – not sculpt your arms).  Sit at the table and eat a meal together – and talk about things. If you are home alone, facetime someone while you both eat and pretend you are eating together. People are doing all sorts of virtual get-togethers.  It may seem weird at first but we will adapt.  

In between creating my new normal with telemedicine, I am gathering things to help my patients increase their serotonin through this.  If you want to receive those things, feel free to jump onto our website and sign up for our newsletter. That platform is going to be the easiest way for me to reach everyone regularly.  If you already have someone feeding your soul with things like that, fantastic. Keep absorbing that information and use it. I will also put some things on social media – but likely not as much.  As part of my serotonin-lowering therapy, I am going to try and stay off of there as much as possible!  

Remember:  

Biochemistry Drives Behavior!

Courtney Younglove, M.D.