Many of us may be in a perpetual state of stress because of the daily challenges we face. There are children to care for, a home to clean, and work deadlines to meet. And these are the seemingly little stressors in our lives. What about the big ones such as death of a loved one, chronic illness, divorce, moving to a new home, or the loss of a job?
Stress is your body’s response to an event or situation that is threatening, overwhelming, or harmful – whether real or perceived. When the response is out of proportion to the actual threat, you will experience distress. If this stress becomes excessive or chronic, or not managed well, it can take a physical and emotional toll on your body. It may exhaust you and weaken your defense against disease. As a result, you may experience gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Distress can also lead to negative habits like overeating, smoking, drinking, or drug use.
Stress is a common trigger for overeating. When you’re faced with a challenge (e.g. a deadline), the hormone cortisol rises in the blood. This may lead to an increase in appetite if the chronic stress is allowing for the production of cortisol production to the point of impacting your appetite. In such stressful situations, people will tend to seek high-calorie, high-fat foods, and their bodies will begin to store more fat than if they were in a relaxed state.
Stress eating is a bandage for stress rather than a cure. A healthier response is recognizing that stress and negative emotions do occur in our everyday lives, and that we must find healthy and sustainable ways to cope with them. While some people may want to dive into a bag of chips, try to choose a healthy activity such as going for a walk, doing a quick-guided meditation, or calling a friend. Other sustainable stress relievers include sleep and exercise. Drinking water can also decrease cravings, and being aware that thirst is sometimes mistaken for hunger. Healthy activities turned into good habits can help avoid and lessen the stress-eating cravings for junk food. If you constantly struggle with stress eating, it may be worth seeking the support of a professional.
When faced with everyday or chronic stressful situations, try these simple exercises as healthy alternatives to overeating:
- Pause. Observe. Focus. Instead of trying to escape the experience, pause and take a few deep breaths. Stand up and do a slow head-to-toe scan. Become aware of the thinking and feeling of your body’s reactions.
- Change thoughts. If your body is reacting to something as manageable or even reasonable, it will remain aware but not alarmed. Thoughts about the past or the future are often at the root of stress. Try thinking about something different or pleasant.
- Acknowledge your emotions. Use your phone or journal and write down your emotions and the food you seek that lead to overeating. Are they high fat, fast food, or sweets? After two weeks, evaluate your results and then make an action list of coping mechanisms to avoid unhealthy foods.
Stress eating happens because there’s an emotional need that isn’t being fulfilled. Pay attention to your inner feelings before they become so intensified that it makes you reach for that jar of cookies.
Diane Morris, Registered, Licensed Dietitian, author and speaker is the owner of DLMCreations, LLC in Fayetteville, GA. Her Food Freedom For Life proprietary program is available onsite or virtually. Ms. Morris works with individuals who are struggling with stress eating – from feeling powerless over food and embarrassed about their bodies – to making them feel happier and healthy, with more energy and confidence. Connect with Ms. Diane Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org.