Many of us love to eat. It’s a natural part of life. But instead of sitting down with people we love to savor each bite, some of us are eating unconsciously as a way to deal with stress. Sometimes, we may not realize we’re stress eating and if we do recognize that we’re doing it, we might feel helpless to know how to stop.
In any case, your weight – and your health – will pay the price until you find a new, more healthy way to deal with stress.
In this article, we’ll share more about the science behind emotional overeating. Plus, you’ll find strategies to help you switch gears during stressful times so that you can get a better handle on the stress in your life and learn new coping skills.
Emotional Eating – What is it?
Here is the science behind why we eat so much when things are already going wrong. The body is full of hormones, which are are secreted by glands to perform specific functions in the body.
When the body experiences stress, a hormone called cortisol is secreted. And that’s when you being to crave sugary snacks. The chips, ice cream, comfort food and candy bars that everyone wants to reach for after a restless night of sleep.
Eating these foods causes you to experience a calming effect, much like when endorphins are released after an exercise session. In fact, they are released here. The level of serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter, rises to further calm you and “turn off” the stress trigger that got the cortisol going in the first place.
Prolonged stress cycles like this are not good for the body. Not only will your weight shoot up, but also your risk of other conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and stroke.
It is a vicious cycle but there is a way out. Stress doesn’t have to control you. Learn to control it.
11 STRATEGIES TO AVOID EMOTIONAL OVEREATING
1. Finding Support
When learning how to cope with a problem, the best course of action is to build a support system. These are family, friends and professionals who will be in your corner to help you discover the root of your situation and offer their hand to hold or their friendly ear when you need it.
This doesn’t mean that they will tell you what you want to hear. They will also hold you accountable for your actions.
Support can be found initially in therapy. Trained therapists can help you to uncover your “emotional triggers.” These are the situations that increase your stress level and lead to stress eating.
You might say that just about everything on a daily basis is a trigger. Not so.
All stress is not unhealthy. If you come outside and find that your newspaper has once again not been delivered, what do you do? You march right in the house and call the company to complain. The problem is solved. Your potentially stressful situation caused you to do something that removed the stressor.
Not all situations are like that. When the stress involves another person or a situation that is difficult to manage, the answers don’t come so readily. This is usually the case around holiday time with stress and also workplace stress and some family situations.
Once you know your emotional triggers, you are armed with knowledge that you didn’t have before. You can see which situations will get the cortisol pumping through your system. Now, you can head them off with a little more help.
Your therapist may suggest ways for you to handle stress constructively. Things such as cognitive behavior therapy teach you how to change your way of thinking by recognizing when a button has been pushed so that you can head it off with sound judgment. Many of the easy strategies to combat stress eating are a variation on that theme.
2. Think logically
When we are in a stressful situation, it is the emotional side of us that begins to kick in. Emotions aren’t always rational and can overrule the head. Flip the script and let the brain do the talking.
Here’s another example. You’ve had a hard day at work. Maybe the boss yelled at you or you felt beat down by the sheer amount of work you had to accomplish in eight hours. Getting in your car is the first time you felt free all day.
On the way home, you start to crave ice cream and debate whether or not to stop and get a double scoop of chocolate chunk brownie ice cream on a giant waffle cone. What’s wrong with this picture?
Before you speed off to the follow the sweet smell of frozen confection, ask yourself one important question: Will eating that ice cream solve your problem at work? Most people are quite rational and stopping to question your motives before you fall into the stress eating trap will start the wheels turning in that brain.
Usually the answer to that question will be “no.” there are actually more reasons why you shouldn’t do it now that you have started to think. It will waste money and gas. You will be eating empty calories. It will make losing weight that much harder. If these things are important to you, you’ll head towards home at this point.
3. Take a deep breath
When everyone is vying for your attention at the same time, it can be hard to hear your thoughts. All you want to do is get away. The stress level is rising by the minute.
Slow things down a bit by taking a deep breath. You don’t have to drop to the floor in the lotus position and start chanting. Simply breathe in deeply through your nose and blow it out slowly through your mouth. Close your eyes if that will help you focus.
This technique is not only a way to tune everyone out for a moment but also a way to get more oxygen to the brain. Increased oxygen in the body, especially the brain, increases your focus and concentration. You can now
consider each attention seeker’s wishes one at a time with a clear head.
4. Clean something
Most of us don’t like doing that on a good day but it can make a difference to your eating habits in times of stress. What you are trying to accomplish is a bait and switch. You are distracting yourself from thinking about food long enough for the body to calm down on its own and flip the sugary craving switch without any damage being done.
Prepare a little cleaning bucket and keep it in an accessible place. Whenever you get stressed at home, reach for that bucket and get to work. It is hard to concentration on getting the coffee stain out of the carpet and the source of your stress at the same time.
At work, if you find the stress getting to be too much, begin to organize your desk. We all can use a bit more of that. A messy desk does not reflect an organized mind, rather a chocolate cookie waiting to be eaten.
5. Laugh (a lot)
Laughter therapy has been well documented as a way to help cope with not only stress but painful events in your life. This laughter can be artificial or brought about by humorous situations.
You may not think that you can make yourself laugh on command. Try it. It starts deep in your belly and moves upward. As you begin to form your laughter, the mind will conjure up happier times and humorous experiences to help that laugh to grow.
Laughing has a calming effect on the brain. It also works the midsection as you tighten those abdominal muscles with each side-splitting chuckle.
If humor on command is not for you, rent a funny movie. In fact, buy one. Every person needs a laughter survival kit. This includes some of your favorite comedy shows and movies that still get you rolling on the floor. Before you reach for the junk food, pop one in the DVD player or VCR and hit Play. In a couple of hours, even before then, you’ll have stopped thinking about food.
6. Have a piece of chocolate
If you’re like me, you’re saying: This is the best one so far. But we are not referring to the average candy bar here. This is dark chocolate. By volume, dark chocolate contains the highest amount of cocoa from the cocoa bean.
It might surprise you to also know that dark chocolate has many health benefits when eaten in moderation. It can ease the symptoms of depression, increase your level of antioxidants in the body and release those endorphins that make you feel good. Who knew a once ounce square of every woman’s favorite snack could do all that. And, it works for men too.
Just like other foods, it is okay to eat in moderation. Eat one small piece each day to feel the cumulative effects of the power of the cocoa bean.
It seems appropriate to mention this on the heels of the chocolate talk. Exercise also releases those same endorphins that we have been talking about with food and also with laughter. Here, you are also getting the benefit of a stronger, leaner and fitter body in the process.
The first thing to do is find an exercise that you like. No one is going to respond to a stressful situation by running for a couple of miles if they have bad knees or have never run in their lives. Hop on your bicycle and ride through the neighborhood. Walk a trail in the park. Shoot a few hoops of basketball.
Each activity that you engage in takes your focus off of the stressor and places it somewhere more constructive. As with deep breathing, the increase in oxygen flow not only calms you but can actually help you to clear the fog of emotion and come up with constructive ways to solve your problem.
8. Sleep it off
When stress is in the picture, you can get physically and mentally drained quite fast. It seems like you can’t take even one more thing happening to you. Stop the madness and find a quiet place to rest.
The good news is that you can’t eat and sleep at the same time. Sleep is a time when the body can shut down and begin to repair itself. It is regrouping so to speak. Even an hour nap has restorative properties that can give you a new outlook on an old situation.
9. Drink a glass of water
We seldom get the recommended daily requirement anyway so a chance to drink more water is good. Strategically consuming water is an old diet trick that still works. Before you eat, drink.
Water fills up that empty space in your stomach giving you a feeling of fullness. It also buys you time to begin focusing on something else that is not food related. With the belly temporarily full, the urge to eat can pass by with no unhealthy consequences.
If you don’t like the taste of tap water, add lemon. Buy bottled flavored water and keep it all around your home, in your car and at work. Whenever you need an emotional boost, it is there at hand.
10. Listen to music
Music is unique in that it can evoke emotional responses and memories. Have you ever just heard an old song and then you were magically transported to another time and place? That is what we are hoping for.
Memories can imprint themselves in a strain of an instrumental ballad or the chorus of some familiar childhood tune. Your mind moves immediately from the stressor to something more pleasant. Taking a walk with your iPod does double duty to remove you from a stressful situation and the junk food.
11. Talk to a friend
This seems like a basic thing, but it can be hard for us to share our troubles with another. We might not be sure how they will react to what we have to say. If this person is a good friend that you can trust, take the plunge.
Sometimes, just hearing the words that describe your situation out loud can trigger all sorts of options for a solution. On the other hand, it can also allow you to see what you couldn’t when you were emotionally overcharged – it is trivial. The rational side of you kicks in and decides that the reason you were so upset wasn’t even worth getting upset about in the first place.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
These strategies for dealing with stress eating are not just another way to bury your head in the sand. They do, however, offer you the opportunity to see your problem in a new light so that you can come up with a constructive solution and not just an emotional one. In reality, after you down that half gallon of Chunky Monkey, your problem will still exist but you won’t be any closer to a possible solution.
In each of the strategies listed above, you are actively doing something to help change your situation. With counseling, should you choose to go that route, while you are concentrating on other things besides food, you can also actively change your thinking about the situation so that stress eating won’t be a factor in your life for very long.
If you live long enough, you will encounter a stressful situation in your life. Emotional eating is one response to stress that is not only unhealthy but also doesn’t do anything to change the initial problem.
Using simple, easy to implement strategies, you can get out ahead of your stress, recognize what situations cause you to reach for food and rationally decide to switch your focus elsewhere. This will be especially helpful around holiday time when food flows like water and so does the emotionally-charged situations. Live a little and laugh a lot to stay sane and away from the sweet snacks.
Recommendations for further study:
Women, Food and God, by Geneen Roth
This is a groundbreaking book, and Oprah.com has a free 15-week companion guide to help you work through the profound questions in the book. If you struggle with emotional eating and stress eating, this book could bring about the changes and the insights you need.
Here’s a link to the book at Overstock: > Women, Food and God (Hardcover)