Why Am I Afraid to Eat in Front of People?

Social Anxiety and the Fear of Eating in Front of Others

Socially anxious people may be afraid to eat in front of others.
Being afraid to eat in front of others can be part of social anxiety disorder. Getty / alfalfa126

The fear of eating in front of others can wreak havoc on your social life, work prospects, and adjustment to college. Socializing usually includes some form of food and drink. Business meetings sometimes take place over lunch or dinner. College cafeterias can be crowded.

If eating and drinking in front of others causes you extreme anxiety, you may either endure these situations with great discomfort or avoid them altogether.

Avoidance creates a vicious cycle in that the more narrow your life becomes, the harder you will find it to eat and drink in front of others. You may find yourself turning down invitations or making choices that don't require eating in front of others, such as eating in your dorm room rather than meeting new friends in the cafeteria.

Triggers

Fear of eating and drinking in front of others can be triggered by a wide variety of situations, foods, and dining companions.

Some people feel anxious in every situation in which they must eat or drink in front of others, while others fear specific settings such as formal banquets or dinner parties. Certain individuals become anxious only when eating in front of authority figures. On the other hand, some may be anxious even when eating in front of people whom they know well. Some may become more fearful if they are in a crowded restaurant as compared to dining in a quiet atmosphere with only a few companions.

If you are like most people with a fear of eating, your level of anxiety probably escalates in proportion to how difficult the food is to eat.

For example, potentially messy foods such as spaghetti will be more anxiety-provoking, because there is a greater likelihood of embarrassment while eating. Finger foods are usually the least threatening, whereas foods that require utensils such as salads, soup, and dishes with sauces are usually the most anxiety-provoking.

Type of beverage does not usually influence level of fear, although drinks that are more likely to stain, such as red wine, may provoke more anxiety.

Fears

If you have a fear of eating or drinking in front of others, there is probably a long list of embarrassing events that you worry might happen in these situations. They may include some of the following:

  • your hands will shake
  • you will spill your food or drink
  • you will choke on your food and draw attention to yourself
  • you will vomit or lose control of your bowels
  • you will look unattractive while eating
  • you will become flushed from eating spicy food

Underlying all of these fears is the fear of being negatively evaluated by others. Indeed, one study found that this fear of negative evaluation explained part of the relationship between social anxiety and aspects of disordered eating. As a result, modifying those underlying negative beliefs is what is needed to treat this type of disordered eating, rather than a focus on specific issues with eating.

Treatment

When the fear of eating or drinking in front of others is a symptom of social anxiety disorder (about 25% of people diagnosed with SAD have this fear), treatment in the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or cognitive-behavioral group therapy (CBGT) is usually recommended.

CBT involves the identification of negative automatic thoughts and the replacement of these thoughts with more rational thinking patterns. In addition, some form of exposure training usually complements the practice of cognitive restructuring. This may involve actual eating and drinking scenarios in which other group participants act as dining companions.

If your anxiety about eating in front of others is due to an eating disorder, or a combination of an eating disorder and SAD, then treatment will need to be tailored to your unique situation. In addition, if you suffer with generalized SAD, or your symptoms do not respond to therapy, medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be advised.

Sources:

Antony MM, Swinson RP. The shyness and social anxiety workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger; 2008.

Heimberg R, Becker, R. Cognitive behavioral group therapy for social phobia: Basic mechanisms and clinical strategies. New York: Guilford; 2002.

Noyes R, Hoehn-Saric R. The anxiety disorders. London: Cambridge University Press; 1998.

Stein M. Social phobia. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press; 1995.

Menatti AR, DeBoer LB, Weeks JW, Heimberg RG. Social anxiety and associations with eating psychopathology: Mediating effects of fears of evaluation. Body Image. 2015;14:20-8.

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