Why You’re Stress Eating and How You Can Break the Cycle

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You had a stressful day at work, you finally come home and before you even know it you're elbow deep in a bag of Doritos. Does this sound familiar? You're not alone.

Stress eating: it is perfectly normal and human. Food is absolutely a source of comfort and relief, so it's no wonder why we turn to it so readily when we've had a rough day or when we're trying to get our minds off of something. When we realize that this type of behavior is normal, we can then work to try and fix it.

Seeking comfort in food normally happens when we are trying to disconnect from the present moment. We might be dealing with some uncomfortable feelings, like anxiety, and so we seek food to disconnect.

Why We Do it:

Here's a brief Biology lesson. When particularly stressful moments arise and persist, our adrenal glands release Cortisol which increases appetite (1). There is no doubt stress takes a toll on your mental resources that keep you focused, and can leave you feeling that "mentally exhausted" feeling we all know so well. When we are in this "depleted" state, we feel devoid of energy. Combined with our appetites ramped up from the Cortisol, our instinct may very well be to turn to food. This mental exhaustion can hamper our problem solving skills (2), in which case, polishing off a sleeve of cookies is much easier than coming up with a plan on how to tackle the work project that's stressing you out. In particular, we reach for sugary and/or fatty foods because our body craves the quickest source of energy (glucose- from carbohydrates), and calorie-dense foods (energy dense foods- typically high fat foods). This is why we more often crave chocolate than celery sticks when we're stressed out. 

You can see why stress eating can easily become a habit. We're just following our biological instincts. And plus, the food simply feels good, and it usually works (temporarily), so we learn time and time again that this is an effective coping skill. Unfortunately, while it feels right in the moment, its more common than not to feel extreme guilt and frustration after the food is gone and our sugar high comes crashing back down. Most of the time, we feel even worse than we did before, especially if we are concerned about our diets and self-image (3). 

So what does all this mean? Are we doomed to forever succumb to our biological instincts and just keep reliving this vicious cycle? Absolutely not! The good news is that we can override this instinct and learned behavior of "eat to cope", and the first step is to be aware of it, which, if you got this far, you are.

Like anything, it takes TIME and persistence to change this habit, especially when it comes to stress imposing on our motivation and ability to problem solve. It might seem difficult figuring where to start, but there are some practices you can begin today to start busting the cycle.

1. Focus on what's REALLY going on
We can all agree that when it comes to stress eating, the MAIN issue is not "I'm hungry". Stress eating is a symptom of unmet needs. Focus on what's really causing you to be stressed and want to eat, and ask yourself what you really need to do to fix the real problem at hand. This ties right into #2:

2. Practice Mindfulness
Before you reach for the bag of chips, just slow down for a second. Just take a minute, breathe, and simple be with your feelings. All of our emotions, even the uncomfortable ones, exist because they tell us about what is going on right now. It's tempting to want to drown out our uncomfortable emotions in food because again, its easy and it works. But instead, ask yourself "WHY do I feel anxious and stressed out right now?" Accept the feelings, and tend to what you need in order to make peace with the inner conflict. 

3. Think of the alternatives
If you just CAN'T think straight and figure out your feelings, you truly need that mental break from the issue at hand, think of what else can take your mind off of the issue. One that won't leave you feeling guilty and self-loathing afterwords, but one that will motivate you to think clearly and properly tend to whatever was causing you stress in the first place. Maybe take just 5 or 10 minutes to practice yoga or walk around the block. Maybe call your best friend or watch an episode of your favorite show. 

4. Practice self-compassion
You're stressed out, you're undergoing a lot. This is prime time to be kind to yourself and be self-compassionate. Whatever you decide to do to combat your stress (even if you end up eating), make sure you are being nice to yourself and responding proactively to your feelings and emotions.

5. Think long-term
It's easy to have tunnel vision when we're undergoing stress, which is why we turn to food, which is a quick fix for stress. We don't always remember the consequences and feelings that may follow. Remember that if you take the time NOW to respond proactively, you avoid even worse feelings later on, and you also avoid reinforcing the stress eating habit even more!

6. If nothing else works, 
At least you took a second to check in with yourself! Maybe you are a little hungry and it is exacerbating your stress. If you decide to eat, just continue to be mindful, and ENJOY it. There's no denying that food is wonderful. If you take the time to eat slowly and more mindfully, you'll be a million times less likely to over eat or make unhealthy choices.

If this is something you struggle with, fill out the form below and one of our skilled Nutritionistas will contact you!

Article by Kimberly Tierney
Nutrish Mish