- Do you crave chocolate at the end of a long day?
- Does an argument with your spouse make you reach for the potato chips?
- If you have made a major mistake, do you stuff yourself with sweet things?
- If you’ve experienced a loss, like the end of a relationship, do you search the fridge for “comfort food”?
Eating in response to emotional stressors is called, not surprisingly, stress eating.
If you reach for food at moments of difficulty, you are not alone. You are also not some kind of out-of-control glutton.
Instead, you are responding to a biological cue. Your body is telling you it is running out of stress chemicals, and needs to be replenished.
Let me explain.
Stress Eating is Your Body’s Attempt to Reduce the Impact of Stress
When you are under stress, your body releases chemicals into your system to be able to cope with the stress better.
These chemicals are the ones that put you into “fight-flight-or freeze” mode, so you are better able to respond to the problem at hand.
The trouble is, that if you experience chronic stress like many do today, eventually your body runs out of the stress chemicals. This is a pretty desperate state for your body, as those stress chemicals are essential for survival.
So, your body sends you continual signals trying to get you to replenish the stress-chemical tank. It has probably sent thoughts to “slow down”, “get some sleep”, “eat healthy” and “calm down”. But, you’ve been so busy with the stress you’ve ignored most of those signals, so your body moves on to Plan B.
It now sends you cravings for foods and substances that are a little similar to the stress chemicals.
Foods high energy such as potato chips and greasy foods, foods high in sugar such as sweets, cakes, cookies, white bread and pasta as well as chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol become the things you crave.
Your body is trying to replenish its stress chemical tank. Unfortunately, because those foods aren’t actually stress chemicals, and the tank can’t be filled that way, the cravings don’t stop, and you only achieve temporary relief from the stress, at best.
In addition, because those foods are low in nutrients and high in calories, eating this way increases your stress by reducing the amount of nutrition available to your system and making you over-weight.
The stress-eating pattern quickly becomes self-defeating.
How to Break the Stress-Overeating Cycle:
As you start to explore ways of responding to your stress better, there is much you can do to reduce the impact of stress.
However, the most important thing is to make sure you don’t get stressed out about reducing stress.
As you try out the strategies and ideas listed below, you are likely to forget and to fail. That’s ok — two steps forward and one step back is a sure-fire way to eventually make progress. Small gains are good.
There are several steps you can take to help curb the stress-overeating cycle:
1. Identify the foods you tend to crave when you are stressed. Think back on what you tend to want to eat in moments of stress.
It is important to think about this before the over-eating happens, because in the moment when you are feeling overloaded, you tend to go on “automatic pilot” and not be very conscious about what you are doing or eating.
2. Identify what actually helps reduce your stress. What are some things you do that make you feel calmer, more relaxed, and bring greater balance into your life?
Often, these are things such as going for a walk in nature, spending time with supportive friends or a beloved pet, reading a good book, meditating, yoga or gardening. It can be small things such as taking the time to light a candle, taking some deep breaths, or petting a cat.
Make a list of these, so you can remember in moments of stress.
3. Learn to recognize food craving as a cue. Over time, instead of actually eating the food you crave, you can learn to recognize this as a signal that you are overwhelmed and overloaded.
Your emotional cup is empty, so you need to slow down and replenish.
4. Replace the overeating with the stress reduction activity. Little by little, stop overeating, and instead do one of the stress reduction things on your list.
If you start doing this occasionally, over time you will likely use helpful stress reduction strategies more and more.
When To Get Help
Some people are able to benefit sufficiently from explanations and information to reduce their stress eating.
This may be because they have lots of natural supports, or because their stressors aren’t that significant, or because they received the information just at the right time to have the change happen.
Others need more than information.
Perhaps you are not able to identify any workable stress reduction strategies in your life. Maybe your current stress is merely the top of the iceberg, and you’ve experienced much stress throughout your life. You may have noticed you are not able to stick with any stress reduction plan, despite your good intentions.
Any of those issues are indications that you may need help to deal with your stress and patterns of stress eating.
Please make use of the other great materials on my website. When you are ready, I invite you to call me at 250-515-2123 or use the pop-up box to schedule a free 15-minute consult. I look forward to hearing from you!