When you're hungry, the smallest things — getting a pissy text from your partner, waiting in impossibly bad traffic, your computer freezing in the middle of a project — can tick you off and make you want to blow up.
Most of us know this hunger-driven hyper-sensitivity as "hanger" or "feeling hangry." In the past, researchers have come to the conclusion that hanger is a result of low levels of blood sugar and various hormones that make you feel aggressive. But, as anyone who's seethed on an empty stomach could tell you, hanger is more nuanced than that. A new study in the journal Emotion looked at what's really happening in people's heads when they become hangry.
What researchers found was that what's happening around you, aka the context of the situation, matters a lot, says Jennifer MacCormack, MA, PhD student in social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lead study author. "So, it’s not just that hunger makes you automatically angry in any given context, or it's not that it makes you feel bad about everything," she says. But, if there are negative or unpleasant things happening around you, then hunger can make these things feel attention-grabbing.
For the study, researchers performed two experiments, one online and one in a lab setting. For the first experiment, they showed people images that were meant to induce positive (kittens), neutral (a rock), or negative (an angry dog) feelings, then showed them an ambiguous image (a Chinese character) and told them to rank the character from pleasant to unpleasant. The researchers found that people who said they were hungry were more likely to give the images a poor rating, only when they were first shown a negative image. But weirdly, hunger didn't make people rank neutral or positive images as unpleasant, MacCormack says. "If there is something actually unpleasant happening around you, the hunger makes that thing even worse, and almost makes you overreact," she says.
So, it’s not just that hunger makes you automatically angry in any given context, or it's not that it makes you feel bad about everything.
Jennifer MacCormack, MA, lead study author
Then, for the lab experiment, 200 university-age participants were split into two groups, one that fasted, and another that was allowed to eat before the experiment began. Half the participants were told to write about their emotions, and the other half just journaled about a boring day. Then, researchers set the people up in front of computers and made the students do a computer test that was rigged to crash, just to piss them off. After that, they had to fill out a questionnaire about their emotions.
Not shockingly, the hungry people reported feeling worse. They felt stressed or hateful, and said that the people conducting the experiment were judgmental and harsh. But weirdly, the people who journaled about their emotions first didn't have the same reaction even if they were hungry. So, based on this information, there seems to be more of a mind-body connection between feeling hunger and anger, beyond the physiological effect that a lack of food has on your body.
When you're hungry, it's easier to get wrapped up in what's happening around you; your focus is all external, rather than thinking about how you're feeling on the inside. "In that moment, your attention is externalized, and you aren't recognizing how hunger is perhaps biasing your perceptions in the moment," MacCormack says. In other words, hunger won't inherently change the way that you feel, but it can definitely change how you react to how you feel.
While this study provides interesting insight about hanger, it's also a helpful reminder to listen to your hunger cues, and eat when you're hungry. After all, hunger is your body's way of telling you that you need energy and fuel.
Of course, sometimes this isn't always doable, because in certain situations you're stranded without food. In those moments, MacCormack suggests doing something positive, like listening to nice music or having a conversation, to help you feel better. If you can't do that, then it's best to take a step back and own that your hunger is influencing how you feel. "Recognize, Okay, this is still kind of bad, but maybe it's not as bad as I'm feeling it is," she says. "Just taking time noticing your feelings can help put you back in the driver's seat, so to speak, of your emotions." And if all else fails, just pack a Snickers in your bag in case of emergencies.