“Whenever we eat in response to feelings of stress, anxiety, or overwhelm—not physical hunger—that’s stress eating,” says Susan Albers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist specializing in eating issues and the author of 50 Ways To Soothe Yourself Without Food.
If you often find yourself trapped in the vicious cycle of stress eating, there are two things you should know. First, the temptation is totally normal. And, second, there is something you can do about it.
Why we stress eat in the first place
Turns out, stress eating is legitimately woven into our biology. “When we're feeling stressed, our body releases the hormone cortisol, which drives us to consume as much food as possible,” says Dr. Albers. That's because back in our caveman days, our cortisol-spiking stressors were immediate threats like a predator chasing us or the fear of famine, so fueling up to escape or save energy for later made sense.
An aggressive email from our boss, today, though? Not an immediate threat to our life, but it still triggers the same biological reaction.
Plus, saber tooth tiger-level threats aside, food also does just make us feel good. “Taking those first bites of food triggers an endorphin release and stimulates our pleasure receptors are stimulated, so we feel this immediate satisfaction,” says Tessie Tracy, a certified eating psychology coach with the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. (Sugar in particular has a particularly potent pleasure effect, because eating it spurs the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine and mood-balancing serotonin.)
When stress eating becomes a concern
Since stress eating is a natural, biological urge, “a little bit of stress eating is not such a bad thing,” says Dr. Albers. “We all do it and it does provide a little bit of comfort—if we're aware and conscious while doing it.”
Thing is, stress eating isn't always mindful and intentional, but a knee-jerk reaction, and thus, people often end up overeating, says Tracy. “Often when we’re eating in that stressed state, we’re eating mindlessly, meaning we eat too fast, don’t register the meal, and barely even remember it later,” she explains. This can make someone feel sick if they overeat, or at the very least not even enjoy the food they ate—making it not even that helpful of a coping strategy.
Despite this, stress eating is often a pattern of behavior for many of us—and that’s when it becomes a problem. “Stress eating should not be the only coping mechanism in your toolbox,” she says. “[Eating is] an easy, convenient way to deal with stress, and our world doesn't teach us a lot of other self-soothing techniques."
“If you feel stress eating is consuming your thoughts and mental energy throughout the day, or contributing to health concerns like fatigue or [unwanted] weight gain, it’s time to seek some extra support,” agrees Tracy.
How to have a healthier relationship with stress eating
To get clear on your stress eating tendencies, Dr. Albers recommends asking yourself the following questions when you eat: Am I physically hungry right now? If not, what’s driving me to eat? What am I feeling right now? “The goal is to pause, tune in, and be mindful about what you’re doing and why,” she says. Once you start tuning it, you’ll be amazed at how often you find that you’re eating for a reason other than hunger.
Once you catch yourself stress eating—or wanting to stress eat—you want to create a window between whatever triggered you and the decision to continue (or start) eating, says Tracy.
First, diffuse the the threat by acknowledging your stress. “Often, stress eating is really about pushing away, avoiding, or ignoring stress,” says Dr. Albers. “It’s hard, but we just have to sit with that feeling. It's okay to feel stressed.” The key: Be curious, not critical: “Explore what you’re stressed about, without judging yourself for it,” she says.
From there, consider other ways to show yourself some soothing TLC. Tracy recommends keeping a list of self-care practices—like reading, going for walks, calling a friend, or petting your dog—handy. When stress has you tempted to run for the pantry, identify which of these calming activities you can turn to for a few minutes instead.
Looking for a food that can help you fight stress? Check out this healthy adaptogenic dip:
“If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can also try turning down the lights, closing the door, wrapping yourself in a blanket or putting on a sweatshirt, and/or putting on some calm music,” suggests Dr. Albers. Overstimulation often drives us to stress eat mindlessly, but creating a more soothing environment can help trigger production of the calming hormone serotonin and put you at ease.
If, after all of that, you still find that you want to eat—go ahead. “Take a few deep breaths and try to be mindful and present with your food, even if you are stress eating,” says Tracy. "There’s a difference between hiding out and inhaling two donuts, and eating half a donut slowly, with awareness and acknowledgment of why you’re doing it.” Eat this way, and you’ve got the power, not the stress or food.
Ultimately, though, if this game plan doesn’t help you ease your way out of stress eating, reach out to a counselor who can hold you accountable and help you work on more proactive coping mechanisms.
To reiterate Dr. Albers' point: Stress eating is not inherently bad. But it can get unhealthy if it's the only tool you have for coping with stress. So when a deadline looms and you find yourself rummaging through your desk looking for dark chocolate, take a step back and think about what else you can do to cope with those feelings. And if chocolate is indeed the answer for you in the moment, enjoy it!
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