How to Overcome the Fear of Eating in Front of People
Truth bomb: I have a fear of eating in public. Now, it doesn’t appear constantly, and these days it’s actually a rarity, but in certain circumstances, I get all self-conscious and start gripping my utensils with an intensity only Olympic lifters could relate to.
When this happens, it’s like a vicious cycle; I grip harder to stop my hand from shaking or to prevent me from spilling my drink, only to make it nearly impossible to eat and drink like a normal person.
Usually, this ends with me not enjoying my meal and leaving a lot of food on the plate.
It tends to crop up only when I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself that I have to act perfectly in a specific situation. For example, I remember a job interview where I couldn’t pick up the water glass they offered me, because I was so scared they would see my hand shaking.
It never happens when I feel like the stakes are low.
Causes of the Fear of Eating in Public
Interestingly, there are multiple causes of the fear of eating in public. In my case, clearly, it was a situation of being judged negatively for my anxiety while eating in front of people.
However, for some people, the fear is about being judged for eating too much or about having a poor body image. This is usually the case in eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.
We know that about two-thirds of those with an eating disorder will also be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, roughly 1/5 of which is social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety disorder who have a fear of eating in public are worried, like me, that others will notice their shaking hands or spilled food.
Understanding the Fear of Eating in Public
Eating is part of so many aspects of life, as is eating in front of other people. If this is your fear, you probably endure or avoid situations where you have to eat in front of other people.
There also might be different triggers like the following:
- formal situations
- authority figures
- crowded restaurants
- foods that are messy
- having to hold utensils
- drinks that are more likely to stain
These are just some examples, and yours might be different.
There’s also probably a long list of things you worry will happen in these situations:
- your hands will shake
- you will spill your food or drink
- you will choke
- you will vomit
- you will look unattractive while eating
- your face will turn red from spicy food
The underlying fear in all of these cases is that others will judge you negatively.
Tips to Overcome the Fear of Eating in Public
1. Be Messy on Purpose. Do some experiments in which you try to be messy or anxious on purpose. Try to make your hands shake or spill your drink a little. By aiming to make a fool of yourself, you will release the pressure you are feeling and learn its not the end of the world.
2. Learn Table Manners. Become a master at table manners only for the purpose of building your confidence when eating. This will help you when you encounter a formal situation; when everyone else is fumbling for which fork to use, you can be confident in your choices and actions.
3. Visualize Being Calm. While you shouldn’t fight against anxiety, it also isn’t helpful to go into a dining situation full of muscle tension. One way to cope with this is to do a visualization exercise before eating. Relax every muscle in your body and imagine a positive experience eating with others.
4. Practice Deep Breathing. If you find yourself becoming anxious before a dining event, practice deep breathing to calm down, such as breathing to the count of four in through your nose, holding your breath for a count of four, and then exhaling for a count of eight.
5. Practice Gratitude. Practice being grateful for the meal you are eating. Feel thankful for the experience. It’s hard to have gratitude and negative thoughts at the same time.
6. Stop Judging Others. If you catch yourself judging how other people are eating their food—stop. The more you judge others, the more likely you are to judge yourself. Not everyone goes around judging other people, and you don’t have to either.
7. Keep a Thought Diary. Keep a diary of your thoughts related to eating in public. When you notice patterns of negative thoughts, replace them with more helpful ones.
8. Use Positive Affirmations. Practice positive affirmations about eating in front of people such as “I find it easy to eat in front of others” or “I am relaxed when I eat with other people.” While this might feel forced at first, over time it will change your way of thinking.
9. Practice With a Friend. Start small, and practice eating with someone who causes you the least anxiety. Gradually work up from there as you grow more comfortable in each situation.
10. Practice Mindfulness. Mindfulness means being aware of the present moment and focused intently on what you are doing “right now.” Instead of getting stuck in your head, stay in the moment and focus on the taste of your food or the conversation with your dining partner.
11. Take a Break. If you’re in a situation and it’s not going well, take a break and go to the restroom to regroup. There’s no sense enduring severe anxiety while you eat; you won’t enjoy your meal and you’ll be less likely to try again. Go to the restroom, refocus, and return with a refreshed mindset.
12. Get Professional Help. If all else fails and you still are struggling to eat in public, consider seeking professional help. If your fear is part of a larger problem with social anxiety, diagnosis and professional treatment is your best option. Social anxiety disorder is a treatable problem with methods such as medication and/or psychotherapy.
Not sure where to head next? Check out this list of foods to eat for anxiety.