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Anxiety and Weight Gain - Can Anxiety Cause Weight Gain?

Rae Hawood M.A., B.N., EdD (Counselling Psychology) medical reviewer
Written by: Marilyn Folk, BScN and Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Rae Harwood, M.A., B.N., EdD (Counselling Psychology)
Last updated: April 14, 2019

Anxiety and Weight Gain - Can Anxiety Cause Weight Gain?

Weight Gain Anxiety Symptom Descriptions:

The gain in weight can be of a few, several, or tens of pounds.

Can anxiety cause weight gain?

Yes! While some people lose weight due to anxiety disorder, some people gain weight. In an online poll we conducted, 60 percent of respondents said they gained weight due to their anxiety disorder.

Why anxiety can cause weight gain

Here are the most common reasons why anxiety can cause a gain in weight for some people:

1. The stress response

Apprehensive behavior activates the stress response, which secretes stress hormones - including cortisol, the body’s more powerful stress hormone - into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it. This is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response, or emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze in place when they are afraid, like a “deer caught in headlights”).[1][2]

Stress hormones, which are stimulants, not only stimulate the body into action, they also cause:

These changes increase available blood sugar so the body has more energy to deal with a threat – to either fight or flee.[3]

As stress hormone levels rise, so does blood sugar. Chronic stress, such as that caused by overly apprehensive behavior, can cause chronically elevated blood sugar, which can cause weight gain for some people.

Research has shown that stress causes an increase in belly fat for some people.[4][5]

Moreover, numerous studies have found that anxiety and other mental health challenges are directly linked to weight gain[6][7][8], so the anxiety/weight gain connection is well known.

2. The effects of hyperstimulation

Overly apprehensive behavior can cause the body to become stress-response hyperstimulated,[9][10] since stress hormones are stimulants. Hyperstimulation taxes the body’s energy resources harder than usual, which can cause an increase in demand for fuel (the foods we eat).

Because the body is looking for instant fuel, we often have a craving for high-calorie foods, such as foods high in sugar and fat since they more quickly convert to fuel (blood sugar). This higher demand for food, and especially high-calorie food can cause some people to indulge in fast and high carb foods, which can increase weight in spite of the increase in metabolism hyperstimulation causes. In effect, some people ingest more calories than even hyperstimulation can use. These excess calories are stored in the body as fat, which increases the body’s weight.

Moreover, as mentioned earlier, hyperstimulation causes the body to produce higher than normal levels of cortisol throughout the day.[11] These higher levels create higher levels of blood sugar, which can cause some people to gain weight.

Furthermore, eating high sugar foods can have a temporary calming effect on the body, so some people indulge in high-calorie foods as “comfort” foods when stressed. Higher consumption of high-calorie foods can lead to weight gain.[12]

3. Inactivity

Apprehensive behavior stresses the body. A body that’s chronically stressed can become fatigued. Fatigue can cause inactivity. The more inactive you are, the more likely it is you’ll gain weight.

4. Anxiety medication can cause a gain in weight

Weight gain is a common side effect of certain types of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications, such as Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac, and Paxil.[13[14] Many people have noticed an increase in weight due to the psychotropic medication they are taking.

Since each body is somewhat chemically unique, each person can have a unique medication side effect experience.

How to treat the gain weight anxiety symptom?

With the above causes in mind, here are a few ways you can eliminate anxiety-caused weight gain:

1. Address your anxiety issues

Addressing your anxiety issues will reduce the number and degree of stress responses triggered each day. As your anxiety diminishes, your body will produce fewer stress responses, which will reduce the production of blood sugar. A reduction in blood sugar will reduce the storage of excess fat.

2. Reduce your body’s stress

Reducing stress will also reduce the overall production of stress hormones. A reduction in stress hormones will cause a decrease in unhealthy blood sugar.

3. Eat a healthy diet and avoid high fat/sugar foods

Choosing more nutritious whole foods, rather than fast and high-calorie foods, can help your body lose weight. A healthy diet can also give you more natural energy with less negative impact on the body’s blood sugar and insulin balance.

4. Increase physical activity so your body uses more fuel than is consumed and stored

Regular light to moderate exercise is not only a great way to maintain healthy weight but it is also a great way to reduce stress, including anxiety-caused stress. Research has shown a positive correlation between regular exercise and a reduction in mental health problems, including anxiety disorder.[15][16]

Because regular light to moderate exercise has many benefits, including reducing hyperstimulation and its symptoms, it’s one of the natural “silver bullet” strategies that promotes recovery and overall good health, including maintaining healthy body weight.

Keep in mind, however, rigorous exercise stresses the body and should be avoided while in recovery.

5. Ask your doctor about switching to a medication that doesn’t cause weight gain

If you need psychotropic medication, talk with your doctor and pharmacist about switching to a medication that isn’t known to cause weight gain. If your medication is anxiety-related, overcoming anxiety disorder will eliminate your need for medication. When you have done sufficient work in overcoming your anxiety issues and believe you are ready to stop your medication, you can slowly taper off. Being free of the psychotropic medication will eliminate the side effect of weight gain.

Overall, addressing your anxiety issues is the most important of the above remedies. Eliminating your anxiety issues will substantially reduce your body’s overall stress load. As your body’s stress diminishes, it will cease to be a factor in gaining weight.

Can gaining weight cause anxiety?

Anxiety occurs when we behave apprehensively. Therefore, no, gaining weight itself doesn’t cause anxiety. But, if you are worried about gaining weight, or worried about what others will think of you if you gain weight, yes, worry will cause anxiety since worry is an example of apprehensive behavior.

If you are having difficulty managing your worry (or other apprehensive behavior), it’s best to work with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, and one who understands the many underlying factors that motivate overly apprehensive behavior. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome problematic anxiety.

NOTE: You might want to talk with Liliana Tosic, our recommended Natural Nutritional Counselor, for more information about how to stabilize or gain weight through making healthy dietary changes.

For a more detailed explanation about all anxiety symptoms, why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.


The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.

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REFERENCES:

1. Harvard Health Publishing. “Understanding the Stress Response.” Harvard Health, May 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.

2. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/.

3. University of California, San Francisco. "Blood Sugar & Stress." Diabetes Education Online, 2019, https://dtc.ucsf.edu/types-of-diabetes/type2/understanding-type-2-diabetes/how-the-body-processes-sugar/blood-sugar-stress/

4. Peart, Neil. "Study: Stress may cause excess abdominal fat in otherwise slender women." Yale News, Sep 2000, https://news.yale.edu/2000/09/22/study-stress-may-cause-excess-abdominal-fat-otherwise-slender-women

5. EE, Epel, et al. "Stress-induced cortisol, mood, and fat distribution in men." Obesity Research, 7 Jan 1999, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10023725

6. Block, Jason, et al. "Psychosocial Stress and Change in Weight Among US Adults." American Journal of Epidemiology, 15 June 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2727271/

7. van der Valk, et al. "Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?" Current Obesity Reports, 16 Apr 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5958156/

8. Sandoiu, Ana. “Why Does Stress Lead to Weight Gain? Study Sheds Light.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 5 Apr. 2018, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321407.php.

9. Justice, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-Like Induction Elevates β-Amyloid Levels, Which Directly Activates Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons to Exacerbate Stress Responses.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Feb. 2015, www.jneurosci.org/content/35/6/2612.

10. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4373764/.

11. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/.

12. “A Tablespoon of Sugar Makes the Stress Go Down.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 22 Apr. 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-antidepressant-diet/201504/tablespoon-sugar-makes-the-stress-go-down.

13. Kivimaki, Mika, et al. "Common mental disorder and obesity: insight from four repeat measures over 19 years: prospective Whitehall II cohort study." British Medical Journal, 6 Oct 2009, https://www.bmj.com/content/339/bmj.b3765

14. Gafoor, Rafael, et al. "Antidepressant utilisation and incidence of weight gain during 10 years’ follow-up: population based cohort study." British Medical Journal, 13 Apr 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k1951

15. Anderson, Elizabeth, et. al. "Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety." Frontiers in Psychiatry, 23 Apr. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/

16. Matthew P. Herring; Patrick J. O'Connor; Rodney K. Dishman. The Effect of Exercise Training on Anxiety Symptoms Among Patients: A Systematic Review. Arch Intern Med, 2010; 170 (4): 321-331, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/774421

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