It’s not just a drop in blood sugar.
Earlier this year, the Oxford English Dictionary finally added the word hangry, which many of us use to describe the belligerence that overcomes us when we desperately need some calories.
That “hangry” feeling is the sort of stuff that causes a spike in your normal usage of curse words. The aggression alone seems to have the power to threaten almost any relationship.
While many might consider “hanger” as inevitable each time we wait a little too long for a snack, hunger doesn’t always equal anger. How do we become “hangry” and is there any way to prevent it (at least for the sake of salvaging our friendships)?
A recent study published in the journal Emotion may have the answers.
Lead author Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wanted to explore the particular emotions we experience when hunger sets in and what other factors contribute to those feelings we call “hanger.”
In a series of three experiments, MacCormack discovered two key things that determine if hunger will contribute to negative emotions such as anger or not—context and self-awareness.
“Hunger on its own doesn’t just automatically make us feel hangry,” MacCormack tells Tonic. “If you’re in a negative situation, the negative stimuli are going to make it easier for you to think that the hunger is actually telling you something about the environment and what’s happening around you, rather than recognizing the source of your feeling bad is actually your hunger.”
In the first two studies, more than 400 participants were shown an image designed to induce positive, neutral, or negative feelings; this is known as priming. Shortly after that image was shown, participants were then shown an ambiguous image, a Chinese pictograph. In addition to reporting their level of hunger, participants rated the pictograph on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant.
The hungrier participants were going into the experiment, the more likely they were to rate the pictograph as negative—but only if the first photo, the priming image, was one meant to bring about negative feelings. The positive and neutral images had no effect on how people rated the pictograph.
“Your brain isn’t just relying on physical states to figure out something,” MacCormack says. “Prior experiences, your culture, and the context you’re in all really matter in shaping your perception of something—that’s why hunger on its own isn’t enough, it requires these other things which help and work together to shape our perception.”
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However, the researchers also found that participants who were more aware of their emotions, and hunger manifesting as an emotion, were less likely to become “hangry.” Emotional awareness, or simply acknowledging the label of “hangry,” allows us to break the link between hunger and emotion, says MacCormack.
In the last experiment, researchers asked more than 200 participants to either fast or eat beforehand. Only some of the participants were asked to complete a writing exercise designed to make them focus on their emotions, then everyone completed a tedious computer exercise that was programmed to continually crash—that is, it was intended to be frustrating. Afterward, both groups filled out questionnaires about their emotions and their perceptions of the experiment.
Lo and behold, the hungry people who hadn't done the self-awareness exercise first reported greater unpleasant emotions after dealing with the broken computer program, while those who had honed in on their feelings (hungry or not) did not report these shifts in emotions.
“It’s really when you’re completely you’re wrapped up in the world around you and you’re not paying attention to your internal state—that’s when it seems hunger is most likely to bias us [toward hanger],” she says.
"A well-known commercial once said, 'You're not you when you're hungry,' but our data hint that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognizing how you're feeling, you can still be you even when hungry," MacCormack said in a release.
While the present study focuses on hunger specifically, MacCormack believes these results point to a strong connection between body and mind. “Our bodies are parts of our minds and if we take care of our bodies, then, in turn, that will help us have better emotional lives and mental health,” she says. “Just being aware of that and taking action for yourself and others can be very powerful.”
So the next time you’ve gone a little too long between meals, take a minute to recognize your hunger as an emotion rather than immediately flipping the bird at the guy who cut you off in traffic.
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