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The relationship between anxiety, depression, and overeating

Food is one of the most essential aspects of life, not only needed for survival, but involved deeply in culture and cultural identity, social rituals, and family ties.

It carries the power to fuel the body, soothe the soul, and tie relationships together. So it’s no surprise food can also be tied to powerful emotions—and, in some cases, emotional disorders.

Research is increasingly finding connections between anxiety disorders, depression, and overeating. But it’s possible to spot the signs of these overlapping conditions and seek out the kind of care that can help ease the emotional pain.

 minutes read
Last updated on 
May 26, 2023
October 27, 2023
Anxiety and depression
In this article

What is overeating?

Overeating refers to consuming more calories than what the body requires for fuel. It can manifest in a number of ways, including:13

  • Eating when not hungry
  • Eating beyond the point of feeling full
  • Eating more quickly than normal

Everyone overeats occasionally. Certain holidays and events, specifically, tend to revolve around food and the idea of feasting.

But some people struggle with chronic overeating. In these cases, the behavior is often driven not by external celebrations but by internal feelings and mental health conditions and concerns. 

Overeating vs. binge eating

While closely related to binge eating, overeating refers more to the broader experience of eating beyond the body's need for food. Binge eating is generally more episodic.

When described as part of binge eating disorder (BED) or bulimia nervosa (BN), binge eating is thought of as the consumption that takes place during a certain period of time, usually defined as within a two-hour window.14

On the other hand, there are no time limits involved in measuring overeating, nor is the term defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Learn more about compulsive overeating and what causes it.

Overeating and anxiety disorders

Overeating has been connected to the experience of anxiety, with the relationship found to go in both directions: Mood can impact the amount someone eats, while the amount someone eats can also impact their mood.1

In one study, generalized anxiety disorder was tied specifically to disinhibition, or the loss of control over how much is consumed, and hunger, as described as the susceptibility to internal or external hunger cues.6

In some ways, the link may be biological. Much like stress, anxiety is associated with elevated levels of cortisol, the "fight or flight" hormone. Cortisol can have a cascade of impacts on the body, among them the drive to find food. It can also be responsible for particular cravings for foods that are high in sugar, fat, or salt.13,15

And a lack of adequate coping mechanisms in the face of increased stress and anxiety may also contribute to the connection. In one study of adolescents who struggled with overeating, 40% of respondents reported feeling a loss of control over how much they ate, in response to experiences of anxiety.3

Overeating as a trauma response

One of the most common anxiety disorders is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And the condition, as well as other types of trauma, has also been connected to disordered eating behaviors, including the kind of excessive eating that takes place in a binging episode.16

Trauma and stress can damage pathways in the brain, impair some neurological functions, and manifest as maladaptive coping mechanisms, including addictive or compulsive behaviors. Similarly, those who have experienced trauma or are under ongoing stress sometimes turn to addictive substances or food in an effort to self-soothe or deal with unpleasant feelings.4

The landmark Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study showed that the number of traumatic, or stressful, events someone experienced as a child also increased their chances of developing a number of future mental illnesses, including addiction, and raised the odds of them becoming mildly or severely overweight.4,5

Depression and overeating

Among mental health disorders, depression also has a close tie to emotional eating and a number of eating disorders. Research has shown that many individuals with major depressive disorder use food to self-soothe, and are at an increased risk of weight gain and chronic disease.7

Once again, foods high in fat, sugar, and carbs may play a role. These foods may help combat the negative feelings associated with depression, triggering a release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is connected to feelings of pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction.2

Eating also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which activates the "rest and digest" response, the opposite of fight or flight. The combined hormonal influx and nervous system switch can result in a calming effect, which someone may subconsciously come to rely on to help them cope with depression.

And people who have depression also tend to experience interpersonal conflict, which can also contribute to the sense of a loss of control, overeating, and binge eating.8,11

Treating anxiety, depression and overeating

Thankfully, there are a number of treatments that can help someone with anxiety, depression, and compulsive overeating.


Many different forms of psychotherapy have been found to help people with both mood and eating disorders.

In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) have all been found effective for curbing binge eating episodes.12


Yoga is another evidence-based approach to address overeating.

In one study, a 12-week yoga treatment program was found to help create a healthier reconnection to food, reduce the amount of food eaten, slow eating speed, and lead to different food choices in women who struggled with binge eating episodes. Over time, this led to more positive outcomes in general wellbeing.10


Meditation and mindfulness are incorporated in many different types of eating disorder treatment, and can also help with anxiety and depression. 

The techniques have been found to help those who struggle with overeating cultivate greater awareness of their physical state, including hunger and fullness, as well their emotional, social, and environmental triggers.9


It’s important to remember that medication is just one component of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment plan for someone who is struggling with their mental health and harmful behaviors.

Still, there are some medications that have been approved for help with either anxiety, depression, binge eating, or some combination of these traits:17,18

  • Vyvanse (generic name lisdexamfetamine) targets this dopamine pathway and can be helpful in reducing the urge to overeat.
  • Prozac (Fluoxetine) is typically prescribed for depression but can also be helpful in managing overeating tendencies.
Help is within reach

If you or a loved one are overeating on a regular basis, it may be time to reach out for help. Our clinical care team can help you get the best treatment for your specific needs. Call now to learn more about how to take your first steps toward a healthier, happier future.

Call us | (866) 293-0041

Finding help for overeating

Everyone overeats once in a while, and there's nothing wrong with occasional indulgences. But overeating on a regular basis can lead to health complications in and of itself, and indicate that something deeper may be wrong.

When food is used to cope with unpleasant feelings or difficult situations, treatment may be helpful to not only reduce the tendency to overeat, but help address the root issues driving the behavior.

You might be interested in

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.


  1. Polivy, J., Herman, C.P. (2005). Mental Health and Eating Behaviors: A Bi-directional Relation. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 96, S49–S53.
  2. Wheatley, S.D., Whitaker, M.J.G. (2019). Why do people overeat? Hunger, psychological eating and type 2 diabetes. Practical Diabetes, 36(4), 136-139e.
  3. Goossens, L., Braet, C., et al. (2008). Loss of control over eating in overweight youngsters: The role of anxiety, depression and emotional eating. Euro Eating Disorders Review, 17(1), 68-78.
  4. Anda, R.F., Felitti, V.J., Bemner, J.D., et al. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. European Archives of Psychiatry Clinical Neuroscience, 256(3), 174-186.
  5. Felliti, V. J., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4): 245-258.
  6. Hussenoeder, F. S., Conrad, I., Engel, C., Zachariae, S., Zeynalova, S., Glaesmer, H., Hinz, A., Witte, V., Tönjes, A., Löffler, M., Stumvoll, M., Villringer, A., & Riedel-Heller, S. G. (2021). Analyzing the link between anxiety and eating behavior as a potential pathway to eating-related health outcomes. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 14717.
  7. Mills, J.G., Thomas, S.J., Larkin, T.A., Deng, C. (2020). Overeating and food addiction in Major Depressive Disorder: Links to peripheral dopamine. Appetite, 148, 104586.
  8. Ansell, E., Grilo, C., White, M. (2011). Examining the interpersonal model of binge eating and loss of control over eating in women. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45(1), 43-50.
  9. Kristeller, J., Wolever, R. (2014). Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training: Treatment of Overeating and Obesity. Academic Press, 119-139.
  10. McIver, S., McGartland, M., O’Halloran, P. (2009). “Overeating is Not About the Food:” Women Describe Their Experience of a Yoga Treatment Program for Binge Eating. Qualitative Health Research, 19(9), 1234–1245.
  11. Nazir, A., & Mohsin, H. (2013). Coping Styles, Aggression and Interpersonal Conflicts among Depressed and Non-Depressed People. Health Promotion Perspectives, 3(1), 80–89.
  12. Binge Eating Disorder. Mayo Clinic. Accessed May 2023. 
  13. Overeating. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed May 2023. 
  14. Berkman, N.D., Brownley, K.A., Peat, C.M., et al. (2015). Management and Outcomes of Binge-Eating Disorder. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (U.S.), No. 160.
  15. What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? (2022, February 14). American Psychological Association. Accessed May 2023.
  16. Brewerton, T. (2007). Eating Disorders, Trauma, and Comorbidity: Focus on PTSD. The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 15(4), 285-304. 
  17. Fornaro, M., Solmi, M., Perna, G., De Berardis, D., Veronese, N., Orsolini, L., Ganança, L., & Stubbs, B. (2016). Lisdexamfetamine in the treatment of moderate-to-severe binge eating disorder in adults: systematic review and exploratory meta-analysis of publicly available placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 12, 1827–1836.
  18. Arnold, L. M., McElroy, S. L., Hudson, J. I., Welge, J. A., Bennett, A. J., & Keck, P. E. (2002). A placebo-controlled, randomized trial of fluoxetine in the treatment of binge-eating disorder. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 63(11), 1028–1033.


Further reading

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While most forms of therapy were originally designed to treat a specific type of mental health disorder, some

How to stop "overeating"

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What is hyperphagia?

People with hyperphagia have an elevated, uncontrollable, and prolonged appetite for food, which usually...

OCD and binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder (BED) is characterized by eating a large amount of food in a short period of time...

How to overcome emotional eating after a loss

Loss and grief affect us in profound ways and can lead to emotional eating. Whether you’ve lost a loved...

The link between medical trauma and eating disorders

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PTSD and eating disorders

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Complex trauma and eating disorders

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Eating disorders and neurodivergence

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What is stress-induced anorexia?

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How to stop anxiety eating

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What are the causes of compulsive eating “overeating”?

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Unpacking anorexia and insomnia

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Understanding depression and eating disorders

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The relationship between anxiety, depression, and overeating

Food is one of the most essential aspects of life, not only needed for survival, but involved deeply in...

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Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a serious condition that involves a preoccupation with physical appearance.

Anxiety and binge eating

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Further reading

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