I remember it as if it was yesterday, sitting at my kitchen table seven years ago, desperate to eat but unable to swallow a single bite. No matter how desperately I wanted to gulp down my food, it remained in my mouth as if a wall had formed in my throat blocking it from entering. The pit of hunger in my stomach grew as time passed but there was nothing I could do to feed it. I burst into tears frequently at that table, scared of the lack of control I had over my body.
For months during this period, I struggled with what I now know to be a panic disorder to such an extreme that my body refused, more often than not, to swallow any food. It was a manifestation I had experienced before, but never to that extreme.
At 16 years old, I lost an alarming amount of weight in a short period of time, forced to take supplements like PediaSure as a substitution for real food.
“Individuals with anxiety disorders have intense and excessive worry and fear to the point where it can interfere with daily activities, including necessary food intake. When in fear, you are fixated on certain thinking, irrational, and unhelpful beliefs, and necessary behaviors, like eating, become less important,” Grace Suh, a licensed mental health counselor, tells Healthline.
While this is a common manifestation of anxiety, I wouldn’t be diagnosed with a panic disorder for another four (!) years so I was completely unclear on why this was happening. I knew I was stressed but that didn’t seem strong enough to change my body this extremely.
As I was noticeably unable to eat in front of friends and family, I would try to explain why, to illustrate the wall that seemed to form in my throat whenever I went to swallow. While my family was scared for me but tried to understand what I was going through, I found that my friends had a harder time wrapping their heads around it.
One specific encounter sticks out. A friend had long struggled with poor body image and stress eating. When I tried to tell her about my situation, she responded that I was “lucky” to not be able to eat instead of stuffing my face when stressed.
It was awful to hear, this idea that someone thought I was benefiting from an inability to eat and losing weight uncontrollably. Looking back it was a clear example of how any type of weight loss tends to be encouraged regardless of how it has happened.
Instead of trying to identify the root cause, in this case a mental health disorder, or acknowledging that someone’s body feels out of their control, a lower number on a scale too often means that someone is doing well and should be complimented. The conversation only fueled my feelings of distress.
He was the one who recommended taking the drink supplements, and also suggested that I go on an anti-anxiety medicine, Lexapro. I had never taken anything for my anxiety and wasn’t actually told that was what I was up against, but I figured it was worth a shot to try it.
In the end, a combination of taking Lexapro, ending a bad relationship I was in, and starting to receive college acceptance letters led to the anxiety significantly subsiding.
Slowly I began to gain weight back as I was able to regularly eat more and more. I had stopped discussing it with my friends, scarred by the negative experience. Instead I focused on myself and feeling good about the progress I was making.
I went off the Lexapro by the end of the school year since, without an actual diagnosis, I didn’t see a reason to stay on it after I had consistently improved. For years following this, I would have small recurrences, but they usually lasted for only a meal or two.
I was isolated, living far away from my parents and friends, and had recently returned from a year abroad. I was, to put it simply, in a very bad place mentally. With constant dissociation and regular panic attacks, I often struggled to finish meals, feeling weak.
As horrible as this was, it gave me the push I needed to finally go back on Lexapro and dive into what the root issue was — the panic disorder.
It wasn’t until this point that anyone gave a name to my condition. By having something to call it, I felt just the slightest bit of power return and the complexity of the illness shrink. Instead of having some unnamed force controlling my eating, I had a cause and a course of action I could take. When a psychiatrist described the symptoms of a panic disorder, I knew instantly that it was not only what I had, but that things would be more manageable from then on.
One of the only lasting effects is that, as a result of both of those extended periods with an inability to eat, it’s harder for me to accurately pinpoint when my body is hungry.
I was unable to react to the hunger for so long that it sometimes feels as if this connection between my mind and body isn’t as strong as it once was. For anyone who has experienced restrictions of their eating, this is actually quite common. As the brain circuits that alert us to hunger are ignored again and again, our body loses some of its ability to interpret and experience traditional hunger cues.
It’s even worse when I’m anxious. “It becomes challenging to accurately tune into when the body is experiencing hunger, because of other strong symptoms of anxiety,” Suh says. She recommends picking foods that are easy to digest when your anxiety is flaring.
On top of that, I notice myself being triggered by the idea of diets or discussion of eating disorders. Having been unable to control if I ate or not for so long has left a lasting scar towards any type of restriction on eating (besides gluten, which I haven’t been able to eat since long before the first episode). Due to experiencing this forced limit on my eating in the past, my brain associates any restriction with frustration, hunger, and pain. I flash back to that lack of control, as the idea of doing anything to limit my consumption unleashes a wave of anxiety. Even the thought of trying mainstream diets like going keto or vegan can create this sensation.
I wanted to share the other side of stress eating — being unable to. It wasn’t until recently that I met other people who had also experienced this, who had also heard they were lucky to experience stress in this way. It was horrible to hear that others faced this but remarkable to have people understand what I had gone through — something I’ve found so complicated to explain. By naming what it is — a symptom of a disorder — it allows people to find proper treatment, get support, and know that they are not alone.
I’m so thankful to be more in control of my anxiety now and to have medicine and support that have allowed that to happen. This is an issue that will always float in the back of my head, worried it may come back. But, I’m prepared and can face it if it does.
Sarah Fielding is a New York City-based writer. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, Insider, Men’s Health, HuffPost, Nylon, and OZY where she covers social justice, mental health, health, travel, relationships, entertainment, fashion, and food.