Anxiety can show itself in many ways. One of these ways is weight. Some people gain weight. Some people lose it.
For a few months, I couldn’t step onto a scale without having a mild panic attack.
But I kept doing it. Because I had to know. And I always thought, this time it will be higher.
Still, it always read somewhere around 82 and 85 pounds.
Before, I hadn’t noticed that I was losing weight. It was gradual, and there were many causes.
One, I learned in college that sugar and caffeine sometimes increased my anxiety, and the stress of senior year was giving me bad acid reflux and heartburn. My counselor told me about the Whole30, so I took on the challenge after I graduated. Throughout that time, I never weighed myself because it’s against the rules–and I am a strict rule-follower.
Like all diets, the Whole30 made me feel better because I expected to feel better. But I also became obsessed with choosing ingredients, avoiding trigger foods, and eating lightly at night to avoid reflux. While the Whole30 is designed to be only thirty days–after which you test foods and add back to your diet the foods that you tolerate–I made it a lifestyle. I was convinced that all foods negatively effected me, and every week I was learning about new foods I needed to avoid.
Following this was hard work, and it involved eating a lot of meat, which I felt guilty about. My guilt made me eat less than I should have, and the work made me choose not to eat much at times because I didn’t want to cook.
This may sound like nothing but an obsessive diet, but it was actually my anxiety telling me that I needed to be in control of something in my life. It was me trying to hold onto something that would “save me” from anxiety.
So when I still had anxiety, I was struck by my weakness. I didn’t have control at all.
And my anxiety also kept me from eating.
Some people have anxiety that makes them want to eat more, but mine makes food repulsive. I have to force it down. The hungrier I get, the harder it is to eat. And then I feel weak and fear I’ll starve myself.
Last year, I got married, moved into an apartment for the first time (besides college semesters), started an internship, and then started teaching, all within in a few months. My anxiety was high, which meant my weight was low. My cheekbones were more prominent, and my legs were as almost thin as they could get. I was incredibly insecure about the boniness of my arms and the way my spine and hips showed through my clothes.
I wanted to gain weight, but my diet was too restrictive for me to eat the calories I needed.
After I got married, I knew I needed to make a change. I went to see a therapist who specialized in eating disorders.
One of the first things I told this therapist was that I was not anorexic.
But that didn’t matter. I was 82 pounds and terrified of eating white flour and sugar. She told me that I needed to go to an in-patient eating disorder treatment facility. I would have to go as soon as possible and stay for roughly a month.
I was terrified. After crying in her office, I left feeling like a failure.
Thankfully, I never had to go, though I am now inspired by writers like BeautyBeyondBones who describe their own experience at a facility and being freed from many burdens that come with eating disorders. I would never discourage a person from going if it is what they need.
For me, I knew I didn’t need to gain thirty pounds. I needed to gain ten. My normal weight has always been around 95, which is low but normal in my family. Part of the reason why I have trouble gaining weight–and why it is easy for me to lose it–is because I have a fast metabolism.
On the therapist’s recommendation, I saw a psychiatrist who helped me increase my medication, then I began cognitive behavioral therapy.
I wanted to gain those ten pounds in a month, but the journey was long. Sometimes I would have days where I could barely eat anything. Sometimes all I wanted to do was eat.
Over time, I added in grains, then dairy, then legumes. I learned I could eat these things and not be anxious. The biggest win was the day I was able to eat a sandwich without having anxiety.
For roughly ten months, I stopped weighing myself. I kept food in the pantry and fridge that I could easily eat. I made protein smoothies. I snacked–a lot.
A month ago, I weighed myself.
I have reached my goal. I’m still thin. I still get called “skinny” a lot. But I’m healthy. I’m stronger.
No matter what your weight is–whether you can’t eat or are struggling with food in any way–you are not alone.
Here are some of the things that I learned as I worked toward a better relationship with food.
- Anxiety seeks a reason to exist. Because we eat at least three times a day, it is easy to blame food. This is why my therapist said so many people with anxiety have eating disorders. Knowing this allowed me to let go of the idea that my anxiety is external. Most of the time, it’s in my head.*
- Diets can be a crutch. I truly believe that a healthy diet is important, but if it is restrictive, it may be causing more stress than needed, or it may be creating a false illusion of control. In reality, while food can make you feel strange at times, strange feelings do not have to become anxiety. We can learn to let our body feel things without panicking. Obviously, though, if a food actually makes you feel awful, you should probably be avoiding it anyway.
- Small amounts will not kill you. I tend to be very black and white on everything. If someone tells me not to eat flour, I’m not going to eat flour whether it’s a cup or a teaspoon. I am only recently beginning to let this go, but it has been important in letting me eat out or at other people’s homes where I cannot control what is in my food. It is also important for being polite when people offer you food!
- Intentionality may be more important than the diet. Everyone is saying different things about food right now. Some say eat meat, others say avoid it. Some say grains are good, others that they are bad. To gain weight, I had to let go of this and focus on eating a well-balanced diet that suited me personally, with my specific weight and lifestyle. Besides, most diets are based around losing weight, and following them made things worse for me.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is awesome. I highly recommend The Anti-Anxiety Workbook: Proven Strategies to Overcome Worry, Phobias, Panic, and Obsessions. While we sometimes talk as if anxiety can only be cured by a sudden change of thinking, CBT makes anxiety something that can be overcome through practical strategies.
- It’s important to stay positive. My motivation for gaining weight could not be based on fear, guilt, or insecurity. I had to tell myself I was beautiful while still hoping to gain weight to feel better.
- Stay off the scales. Focus on how you feel and being healthy rather than on the number. For me, seeing the number made me too anxious to eat. This meant I needed an accountability partner (my husband), and take away an scales I might be tempted to use.
Of course, as always, I am not a therapist. I have even written advice on this blog that I have deleted because I worry I might mislead people. This is my particular journey. My main hope is that you know that you are not alone, and that there are options for you.
The older I get, the more I feel that my fears can be overcome, and that belief is only strengthened when I begin to document and remember my past victories. I want to continue sharing my stories and taking in the stories of others so that we can all be reminded that we are all stronger than we think we are.