Stress eating? The struggle is real… here’s how to break the cycle

Even before a global pandemic more than half the U.S. population struggled with stress eating as they turned to food for comfort.

Stress eating can occur for a variety of reasons, anxiety, sadness, boredom, grief, and of course a lot of stress. These are negative feelings and to help us cope we turn to food because it “feels good”; even though it’s only temporary. When we stress eat we’re using food to solve a problem, in part, because it provides pleasure from an emotionally difficult situation. The problem is, stress eating is the worst thing we can do as it not only can make the emotional problem worse, it can also add new problems in the form of weight gain and feelings of disappointment in ourselves. Sometimes, this leads to even more stress eating and the cycle goes round and round.

Three strategies for managing stress eating

Before we talk about each strategy it’s important to note they are very different in their approach; one might work for you or a combination of all three might be best. Allow yourself to experiment and use what works best for you. Also, each of the three strategies does something crucial and different; develops awareness around what triggers your overeating, provides tools to help when your triggers are activated, and helps you understand that your behavior around food doesn’t define you as a person.

Strategy one: go ahead and overeat

We all operate on what we’ve learned, past experiences and how we feel emotionally; this can put our brains on autopilot. Once a trigger is introduced, we automatically respond in the same way without any real decision making. Specifically, stress eating can result from things like sights, smells, people and emotions. For example, you notice you’re eating cookies, munching on chips or having a slice of cake most evenings and you wonder why and maybe even feel bad about it. Then you realize you’re eating those when you’re watching TV. You may not be hungry, but you feel the need to eat something anyway. The trigger is an event that revolves around food and it doesn’t take long for this to become a habit, something you do without thinking.

Since we all find it difficult to pin-point our triggers, one way to begin becoming aware of them is to give yourself permission to overeat. While it sounds uncomfortable, view it as a learning experience, maybe even a necessary step in the process. This step helps you identify your triggers and at the same time removes the guilt you feel for overeating. Since you are allowed to overeat, it takes away the guilty feelings. The idea is, once you give yourself permission, eating the whole box of cookies is less desirable, and you realize having one to two cookies is enough.

Strategy two: create a food and body menu

What is a food and body menu? Its deciding to pick a thing (action) that you’ll always do before you start stress eating. Try to make up several actions so you have a “menu” of choices. By creating this menu, then picking a choice and acting on it, you’ll break the behavior cycle. Also, it’s important to pick actions that aren’t connected to food. Here are some examples of things you can do before stress eating:

  • Drink a glass water
  • Take three to five deep breaths
  • Mentally consider if you are actually feeling physical hunger
  • Play with your children (or pet) for five-ten minutes
  • Perform some stretches
  • Listen of your favor music 10-20 minutes
  • Go for a walk
  • Do some housework (cleaning, laundry, organizing)
  • Writing down two or three emotions you are feeling right now

Whatever you add to your list make them easy and they should take you about 15 minutes to complete. You should also put your menu somewhere visible and easy to access. Use it when you need to but don’t worry if you skip it now and then. It’s a no judgement zone!

Strategy three: be compassionate to yourself

Many of us have busy lives, work , kids, other responsibilities, so we shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel bad when we aren’t eating well or exercising. Don’t allow yourself to engage in negative self-talk. This one is very important because research has found that negative self-talk releases dopamine and according to Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon, “dopamine is involved in habit formation and the addiction pathway. As a result, the cycle of negative self-talk, stress eating, and feeling bad about it can become a never-ending loop”.

Self-compassion is:

  • Giving yourself a break
  • Being honest and seeing the big picture
  • Being kind to yourself

Self-compassion is not:

  • Giving yourself a forever get out of jail free card
  • Ignoring your problems
  • Letting yourself off the hook

Keep in mind, food provides us with joy, comfort, and sustenance and just like anything it can be abused if we allow ourselves to over-indulge. We associate food with good memories and shared meals with loved ones; it’s also cultural. Food is all around us and we have to be careful not to use food to bury how we feel.

We’re all dealing with a lot right now, work, family, kids and a global pandemic. It’s more than enough to stress out anyone. These are the times when we have to focus on our own individual well-being. Take stock of how you feel, if you need help or just want to talk, reach out to a friend, co-worker or family member. Also, where possible, try creating good memories by sharing healthy meals with your immediate family, maybe even share a meal with friends over Skype or Zoom. If you feel a trigger moment coming on, remember you have tools to recognize it and break the cycle.

Be safe… be healthy… and take care of each other!

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