If you're trying to lose weight, you're probably going to run into some obstacles along the way (like figuring how to still enjoy a regular rotation of desserts). And if you're one of the 40 million Americans who struggles with an anxiety disorder—the most common mental illness in the U.S.—your anxiety is probably going to be one of those weight-loss obstacles too.
Let's take a look at some of the ways it could be affecting your goals—and, more importantly, what to do so you can get back on track and get your anxiety (win!) and your weight loss (double-win!) under control.
1. Anxiety can mess with your sleep, and bad sleep patterns can make it harder to lose weight.
Getting plenty of high-quality sleep is a must for weight loss (a study from the University of Chicago found that lack of sleep can reduce fat loss by a whopping 55 percent). But if you struggle with anxiety, catching enough zzzs can be a real challenge.
"Anxiety can cause disrupted sleep and, in turn, increased fatigue. Both of these things can cause you to crave unhealthy foods, burn fewer calories, and decrease your willpower to avoid unhealthy food," says Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in Newton, Massachusetts.
When you don't get enough sleep, not only are your defenses down—making it harder to make diet and exercise choices that support your weight-loss goals—but sleep deprivation also throws your body's hunger system completely out of whack. That same University of Chicago study found that participants who got less sleep produced more ghrelin (a hormone that sounds like something Phoebe Cates would have to slay in an 80s classic, but which actually triggers hunger) than participants who slept a full eight hours.
2. Anxiety can cause cortisol to spike—which can actually stimulate fat production.
Speaking of hormones, anxiety is also correlated with increased levels of cortisol, which is arguably the body's public enemy No. 1 if you're trying to lose weight.
"Cortisol is believed to be released when we experience heightened levels of stress or anxiety," Chait says. "Some research suggests that increased levels of cortisol can cause weight gain or make it harder to lose weight."
When your body's "fight-or-flight" response is triggered, as it does when you're feeling anxious, your body starts producing more cortisol, which can mess with your metabolism. Cortisol is a stress hormone that causes your body to release sugar—basically, your body hears that you're stressed out and thinks you need a burst of sugar to provide you with energy (like to run away from a tiger, except, in this case, the tiger is a public-speaking engagement). "This can cause an increase in appetite and a craving for sweet, high-fat, and salty foods," says Vanessa Rissetto, RD.
An overabundance of cortisol has also been linked to increased fat around the abdomen (also known as "visceral fat"), which can be resistant to traditional weight-loss efforts like diet and exercise.
3. Anxiety can make it harder to make healthy food choices.
"People with anxiety may have a hard time making decisions about what to eat, resulting in them eating more unhealthy food," Chait says. It's also much easier to lose track of what you're eating when you're feeling anxious—and that distracted eating can add up to extra pounds on the scale. "Similarly, anxiety can cause people to be distracted, which may cause them to eat aimlessly, paying less attention to what they're eating or how much they're eating."
4. Anxiety can make it harder to get to the gym.
Exercise can absolutely help you lose weight (among many other health benefits). But when you're feeling anxious and overwhelmed, lacing up your shoes and going to the gym is usually the last thing you feel like doing—which is probably why studies show a connection between anxiety and a lower rate of participation in physical activity.
"When some people are anxious, they move and exercise less," Chait says. And the less you move, the harder it is for your body to burn calories (and for you to lose weight in the process). "Metabolism will slow down with decreased physical activity."
Clearly, anxiety and weight loss do not play well in the sandbox together, but enough about the problem. Let's talk about the solution.
Get Your Anxiety Under Control (and Your Weight Loss on Track)
1. Keep an anxiety journal by your bed.
If your anxiety is keeping you up at night, try keeping a journal next to your bed. Every time you find yourself struggling with an anxious thought or feeling, write it down. Getting your anxiety out of your head and onto paper can make it feel less pressing or immediate, which can help you let go of the anxiety and get to sleep.
2. Try mindfulness meditation.
If you need a secret weapon to battle your anxiety, your best bet is meditation. In particular, mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness practice, which involves focusing on the present moment, has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and lower the body's stress responses (including hormone and inflammatory responses). And the best part? You can start reaping the anxiety-reducing benefits after a single session.
To get started with mindfulness meditation, you can do it on your own or with a guide. To try it alone, just sit comfortably and close your eyes. Focus on your breath. When thoughts pop up (which they 100-percent will!), acknowledge them and bring your attention back to the breath. Rinse and repeat every time you get distracted by a thought.
You can also use an app to help guide you through meditation, which can be a great place to start—especially if the idea of meditating feels a bit intimidating. One good choice is the new app Awaken, which offers a whole host of Buddhism-inspired guided meditations as short as two minutes for de-stressing and self-care.
3. Coax yourself into hitting the gym (or at least taking a walk).
Getting to the gym or outside for a workout can feel so overwhelming when you're struggling with anxiety—but it's one of the best things you can do. Exercise helps you lose weight, but it's also been shown to lower physical and mental symptoms of anxiety and improve mood and sleep—all of which will help you lose weight. It's like a positive feedback loop that will leave you feeling better mentally and physically.
If your anxiety is making it hard to work out on a regular basis, start slow. Research shows that a 10-minute walk can be just as effective for relieving anxiety as longer, more intense exercise—and once your anxiety is in check, it'll be easier to get to the gym and start doing the kinds of workouts that will move the needle on the scale.
The important part is to start small, then increase your involvement, which will lead to less anxiety and more assurance: Short walks can lead to longer walks, which can lead to alternating walking/running, and on to a 5K. Set goals along the way for continued improvement, but start wherever you are and keep on it. It also helps a lot to let somebody know what you plan to do—talking about it helps solidify a goal.
Deanna deBara is a freelance writer and accidental marathon runner living in Portland, OR. Keep up with her running adventures on Instagram @deannadebara.