What Is Stress Eating?
Stress eating or “emotional eating” is eating in an attempt to make yourself feel better. In other words, to feed a psychological need rather than a grumbling stomach. Too often we feed our bodies when it’s our souls that are starving.
If this is you, don’t beat yourself up. Biologically, stress eating makes sense and it works in the very short-term. Think about those foods that you grab when you are feeling overwhelmed. Maybe it’s your favorite bag of chips, your family’s homemade chocolate cookie recipe or a quick drive to that hamburger joint with the amazing milkshakes. These are high-fat, high-sugar, calorie-laden comfort foods that stimulate the reward centers of our brains. They release feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin.
Are YOU A Stress Eater?
Wondering if you are eating due to stress? Consider the following questions:
- Do you eat when you are not hungry and/or eat past the point of fullness?
- When you finish eating, do you find yourself experiencing a barrage of negative self-judgment based on your food choices?
- Do you intentionally eat alone so others don’t see what you’re eating?
- Does eating temporarily relieve or distract you from the feelings prior to the eating episode?
- Do you eat based on a primary (positive, negative, or neutral) emotion? (By “neutral”, I mean the feeling of boredom)
- Do you crave specific foods when you are upset?
All of us will answer “yes” to these questions occasionally. And, as with most behaviors, “it’s not a problem until it’s a problem.” However, if your “yes” answers pertain to more than a few times a week, it’s time to change the pattern.
How To Stop Stress Eating
Identify the source of stress
Looking into the reasons for your eating patterns is the first step to making changes. Maybe you’ve been arguing with a friend or loved one. Or your new boss has increased work demands. Sometimes the source of stress stems from internal negative thoughts. In that case, you could be your own worst enemy.
Before you can devise healthier solutions to emotionally feed yourself, it is necessary to identify the reason for your stress eating habits.
Most stresses fall into one of the following categories:
- Physical: You’re too tired, worn down, or exhausted. You aren’t sleeping well at night, which causes an imbalance in hormones, contributing to increased food cravings.
- Mental: You may be mentally overloaded with work and life demands.
- Spiritual: A crisis of faith or a shift in how you see your place in this world often creates feelings of distress. This often happens in life transitions (early adulthood, midlife crisis, retirement). If you are questioning your place in this world and what your impact means, this can create feelings of cognitive dissonance (where old thoughts or beliefs are challenged by new views or information).
- Social: We are social creatures by nature. If something isn’t sitting right in one of your primary relationships, changes in eating patterns often develop.
- Psychological: A traumatic event, even something seemingly “small” or from a relatively long time ago can shift the way that you see and interact with the world in ways that we are often unaware of. Look at your thoughts and behaviors surrounding food choices and needs to explore if this may be affecting you.
Feed yourself what you need
Now that you know where the stress eating is coming from, you are in a better position to make positive change. Look at the category contributing to the stress eating and find a different way to meet that need.
- Physical: Find ways to build in breaks throughout your day so that you aren’t over-tired. Improve your sleep habits so that you aren’t a walking zombie. Get off the couch. Research shows that exercise improves emotional balance.
- Mental: Allow moments to check out or relax. A daily dose of meditation or diaphragmatic breathing will reduce not only stress eating but other anxiety-related symptoms as well. Read more about diaphragmatic breathing here.
- Spiritual: Explore and reflect on your life’s ambitions and goals. While our core personalities and global beliefs often remain the same, our outlook on life and the importance of goals often shift over time. Most people see this as a good thing. In fact, people generally report that they are happier as they age into their twilight years. To get to a less conflicting mental space, you may need to acknowledge a shifting of views and adjust your life accordingly.
- Social: Practice good boundary setting and kind but direct communication with the people in your life. If a relationship is unhealthy, you may need to distance yourself or change the way that you interact with that person. You deserve to have the same support that you give.
- Psychological: Explore the thoughts that you tell yourself. Oftentimes, we are so busy getting through something that we don’t have a moment to reflect upon the impact that it’s had on us until further down the road. Journal your thoughts, share with a friend, or buy a self-help workbook related to your personal challenge for assisted guidance.
Get outside help
If you continue to struggle with stress eating or your relationship with food is more complicated than occasional moments of eating to self-soothe, support from a counselor, dietitian, or nutritional coach may prove life-changing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.