“Hanger” Is an Actual Thing
Research has identified the linkage between hunger and negative emotions.
Posted July 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Hangry, a creative blending of hungry and angry, is an adjective that describes being irritable in connection with hunger.
- Until recently, there was no scientific evidence to confirm the extent of the relationship between hunger, mood, and affect.
- Greater levels of self-reported hunger were associated with more intense feelings of anger and irritability and lower pleasure.
It’s not an uncommon experience: You find yourself in between meals, perhaps way in between, feeling increasingly hungry and growing more and more irritable, frustrated, impatient, intolerant, and even angry—you’re “hangry.”
Hangry, a creative blending of hungry and angry, is an adjective that describes being irritable in connection with hunger. The term first began to make its way into our cultural vocabulary in the 1990s. It’s a term that has made appearances in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Bon Appetit, as well as broadcasts on CNN and NBC, and even television and online ads.
But, to what extent is the hanger simply made up and reinforced through popular culture? After all, the power of suggestion—“You’re hangry!” and the increasing prevalence of the concept give it a degree of reality. Common sense-wise, the concept of hanger certainly appears to have validity, and there is ample anecdotal evidence and lived experience for its existence. However, until recently, there was no actual scientific evidence to confirm the extent of the intimate relationship between hunger, mood, and affect.
In one of the first studies to explore how hunger affects emotions as people go about their daily lives, researchers from the United Kingdom, Austria, and Malaysia recruited 64 adults aged 18 to 60 to record their feelings of hunger, anger, irritability, pleasure, and arousal at five specific times each day for three weeks (a total of 9,142 responses).
Published July 2022 in the journal Plos One, the results indicated that greater levels of self-reported hunger were associated with more intense feelings of anger and irritability and lower pleasure.1 Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers found this to be a direct correlation: the more hungry people felt, the more irritable and angry they became.
Importantly, the associations between hunger and negative emotionality remained significant and stable even after accounting for the gender, age, body mass index, dietary behaviors, and trait anger of study participants. This suggests that the link between hunger and negative emotions is robust across different groups.
Moreover, results showed that irritability, anger, and lower pleasure were predicted by both day-to-day fluctuations in hunger and mean levels of hunger over the previous three weeks—two different forms of self-reported hunger, demonstrating an especially strong connection.
While this research does not mention potential solutions related to negative hunger-induced emotions (other than eating when possible), existing research suggests that the ability to label an emotion by putting feelings into words can help people better regulate their challenging emotions. Often, the sensory experiences that create or contribute directly to the formation of emotions first emerge beneath the surface of conscious awareness.
This occurs through neuroception or detection without awareness within the autonomic nervous system. Working beneath conscious awareness, the autonomic nervous system effectively listens inside the body, outside the environment, and in the relationships between people.
Notice and Name
Critically, the first step to making implicit experience explicit is to bring perception to neuroception, noticing that you are experiencing something. Often, we have a vague sense of some uncomfortable/painful sensation. It affects us, but we aren’t clear about what’s happening.
Although initially, you may not know the sensation or emotion, it is important to notice and acknowledge that you are experiencing something definitively. Consciously noticing it makes the experience conscious, allowing us to work with it intentionally.
The next step is to identify the emerging sensation or emotion, to name it. Research shows that naming a difficult sensation/emotion reduces reactivity in the Amygdala, the part of the brain that serves as the nervous system’s car alarm and goes off in response to perceived threats. The simple act of making the unconscious conscious by noticing & naming a sensation or emotion decreases its grip on us.
Being able to label our experiences consciously (e.g., “I am hangry”) can help us make greater sense of our experiences, as well as indicate the most helpful and healthy approaches to work with those negative sensations/feelings—for example, “I need to eat.” This can help reduce the likelihood of hunger resulting in negative emotions that then translate into unskilled interactions and behaviors.
Copyright 2022 Dan Mager, MSW
 Swami V, Hochstöger S, Kargl E, Stieger S (2022) Hangry in the field: An experience sampling study on the impact of hunger on anger, irritability, and affect. PLoS ONE 17(7): e0269629. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0269629