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How To Stop Stress Eating

By Zak Williams

How To Stop Stress Eating

When it comes to dealing with anxiety and depression, many of us have our own, unique coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, not all of those coping mechanisms are healthy. Instead of going for a run or scheduling a therapy appointment, some people choose to eat their feelings--think of the cliche binge on a pint of ice cream in movies or TV shows. 

Understanding why that happens and what can be done about it can help you stop coping in unhealthy ways so that you can develop new, healthier coping habits. With that in mind, today we’ll be discussing how to stop stress eating.

What Exactly is Stress Eating?

Before getting into how to stop stress eating, let’s start by defining it. 

Stress eating, also known as emotional eating, is turning to food, even when you might not be hungry, during times of increased stress. While this tends to happen more with unhealthy foods (think junk food and sugary snacking like fast food, desserts, etc.), stress eating can also refer to general overeating or binge eating as a response to stressful situations. 

It’s a way that we try to numb ourselves so that we don’t have to feel the stress as intensely, much similar to how others turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. Stress eating functions as a buffer between us and our feelings.

Ironically, when we first encounter a stressor, the body often shuts down our appetite. However, if the stress continues, eating triggers can begin to surface. Women do tend to be more affected than men, but stress eating can happen to anyone. 

In fact, one study performed by the American Psychological Association showed that 38% of people surveyed say stress had caused them to overeat or make unhealthy food choices in the past month. More than half of those people went on to say that it happened at least once a week. You’re definitely not alone in the struggle. 

So why do we get these good cravings when stress levels are high? It turns out that there’s both a psychological and physiological answer to that question. We’ll look at the physiological first.

Why Does Stress Eating Happen on a Physical Level?

When the body first goes through a period of increased stress, a natural response to combat that stress is set into motion by the nervous system. Although our stress triggers can be physical, emotional, situational, etc., the autonomic nervous system, specifically the SNS portion (somatic nervous system) springs into action by telling the adrenal glands that it needs to start pumping out epinephrine (also called adrenaline). It’s this sudden flooding of epinephrine in the body that puts it into “fight or flight” response, which naturally squashes the appetite so that our bodies can save energy for more important, lifesaving functions (running quicker, hyperfocus, etc).

With persistent stress, the body tells the adrenal glands to release another hormone into the mix: cortisol. Cortisol is a natural appetite stimulant, and it is released so that the body can be triggered into getting the fuel that it needs for the extended fight or flight response that it is going through. It also has been said to increase motivation. Unfortunately, those factors combined mean that cortisol tends to ramp up our motivation to eat as a stress response. Your body is literally telling you what to do. It has no way of distinguishing between a busy day at work versus a bear attack. 

Over time, cortisol also has the ability to wreak havoc in the body. An overabundance in the system is a leading factor in the development of heart disease, memory impairment, headaches, and sleep problems. It also slows down our metabolism to conserve our energy, which can lead to weight gain and disrupted eating patterns despite normal levels of physical activity. 

However, what our body doesn’t do is tell us exactly what to eat. That part is up to psychological factors… and societal influence.

Society Isn’t Helping Much With Psychology, Either

Unfortunately, the society we live in isn’t doing much to help with stress eating. We’re under a constant barrage of advertising from the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep. 

In addition, foods, more than ever, are being created to be “hyper-palatable,” meaning they are made high fat and high in sugar. Scientifically, foods high in sugar and/or carbs can  activate our brain’s “pleasure center.” This is the science behind food cravings--the release of dopamine and endogenous opioids from our brain's pleasure center makes us feel relaxed and happy to be eating what we're eating. 

Due to the prevalence of these foods and how much easier it is to grab junk food in place of healthy snacks, people have unconsciously started to see these foods as being a source of comfort. Just thinking of your comfort foods starts to trigger a psychological response, much like a rat in a maze when it reaches the cheese. It’s subliminal marketing at its finest.

When you’re looking to relieve stress, why wouldn’t you want to turn to something that you’ve been trained to associate with comfort? 

Over time, the vicious cycle of stress leading to eating an excess of comfort foods can actually lead to some pretty serious health effects. In addition to the problems associated with an increased cortisol level, stress also naturally increases your blood sugar due to the way it stops the release of insulin, which would normally stop sugar from being allowed to build up in the body. Thus, people who turn to food to cope have a much higher likelihood of developing diabetes and obesity. This in turn can trigger even more stress. Starting to see why it's not so simple to learn how to stop stress eating?  

How To Stop Stress Eating

The first, most important step in learning how to stop stress eating is to identify the source of the stress. Once you can identify that, and any associated triggers, you can put a plan into place to start to reduce them. You can also put into practice some of the following healthy coping mechanisms, as well.

 It’s important to know that there is no magic wand, and it may be difficult to undo a coping mechanism that has been established both by society and by your own brain. Go easy on yourself.

  • Develop healthier eating habits - Don’t expect to change overnight, as your coping mechanisms weren’t built overnight either. You don’t have to go into your kitchen and throw away every single bag of chips. Focus on making small, incremental changes instead. Start by taking a look at your nutrition habits to identify any nutritional deficiencies that may be triggering your body to cope less well with stress, and take a supplement to help get your overall nutrition health back to normal (PYM Original Mood Chews is a great choice). Choose to eat a salad instead of a cheeseburger for lunch. If you must have cake, try eating half a slice instead of a full slice. Over time, practicing more mindful eating and making small changes toward more healthy habits can really add up.
  • Exercise - Exercise is great to mitigate the effects of stress. When it comes to choosing an exercise to help with stress eating, it’s recommended that you lean more toward exercises that are lower impact (as higher impact exercise may further increase your cortisol level). Think tai chi, yoga, even a relaxed walk with your dog. It can also get you out of the house and away from potential food triggers.
  • Lean on your support system - We’ve known for a long time that stress is better eased when we surround ourselves with supportive people. This may look different for everyone - friends, family, coworkers, even a therapist - but if you rely on them to help get you through stressful times and negative emotions instead of turning to food, you’ll not only have a healthy outlet to vent but also end up with much closer relationships with the people who are important to you.
  • Meditate - Meditation is an often misunderstood and underutilized tool when it comes to improving mental health. The same technique that has been helping people through their anxiety attacks for years is just as helpful when it comes to managing stress eating behavior. Meditation provides you with a tool to be able to really check in with your body and can allow you a time out before you start to stress eat. Instead of heading right for that cookie, take a few minutes in a quiet place to calm your mind and do some deep breathing. You might be surprised by how little you still want to reach for food to cope after that.
  • Learn the difference between physical and emotional hunger - This won’t happen immediately, but taking the time to think before you snack can help you better learn whether your body is really hungry or if you’re just eating to numb something. Physical hunger tends to come with physical symptoms - growling stomach, headache, lack of energy, etc. When in doubt, drink water to see if that will help first. If you’re still feeling physical hunger, take the time to reach for a healthy option instead of falling back on mindless eating and junk food. 

Stress is a normal part of life. That doesn’t mean it has to impact your whole life, though! Much like everything in life, learning how to stop stress eating is a process. Be nice to yourself and start with small changes to help combat this incredibly common stress response. 

It might not be easy right off the bat, but we promise you’re worth it.