By Jessica Bachman, PhD, RD
Stressful situations cause a reaction in our bodies that is intended to remove us from harm quickly. This response is helpful in an acute stress situation where we need more energy readily available to fuel a quick departure from harm (think being chased by a lion, you have to RUN!). However, in our current environment, most of the stressors that we experience regularly are chronic stressors that have little immediate potential to impact the safety of our bodies. Instead, these stressors stick around for days, weeks, and months and have an impact on our long-term health.
People respond to stress in a variety of ways due to a host of individual factors. However, a common response is to turn to food when the level of stress we experience exceeds our ability to manage it for a source of relief. Eating is something that most people find to be an enjoyable and rewarding act. When feeling a heightened level of stress, getting that one moment of feel-good bliss can be exactly what you need, even if it’s momentary and quickly fleeting. And that’s the thing with eating when you are stressed, it DOES work. You do feel good. But oftentimes, that feel-good moment is quickly turned into a cascade of regret, shame, and even more stress. This can create a cycle of stress eating that looks like this:
The Cycle of Stress Eating
- Chronic daily stress – life, work, kids, etc create an environment where stress is consistently high
- One particularly stressful event happens – this can be anything that happens in your day that increases stress even just a little bit more that puts you over your capacity to manage your stress
- You react by doing something that will allow you to forget about your stress or relieve your stress for even a moment – for many people, reaching for highly palatable food (typically this is higher sugar or fat such as chips, cookies, chocolate nuts) that tastes good is the go-to stress relief.
- You feel good while eating which reinforces this association. So, the next time you exceed your threshold of stress, you grab food again to experience that moment of relief. The more often you do this, the more you continue to do this and an association between stress and eating is built and it becomes a habit.
- Unfortunately, the feel-good moment tends to pass quickly once eating is done (or even after the first bite) and it’s replaced with feelings of shame and regret.
- This can lead to stress levels staying high and a feeling of failure that is not supportive of helping you make a different choice the next time
- With stress levels remaining high, you are set up to repeat this cycle again the next time another stressful episode comes your way.
So, How Do You End This Cycle?
Awareness is the first step. It’s hard not to recognize when a stress-eating episode happens. You are there and experience it; however, I recommend you take your awareness to the next level. Track when this happens. Track how you are feeling. Write down the situation. This will allow you to then look at your behaviors over time and find and assess the similarities to hone in on where to focus on making changes. Seeing how frequently this happens or reading about the thoughts and feelings you experience when it happens can be an eye-opening catalyst for change.
Second, stop the guilt and shame. No one has ever guilted, shamed, or hated themselves into changed behaviors. In the discussion above, the cycle occurs not from eating food you didn’t want to eat in response to stress but in your reaction to shaming yourself after eating in response to stress. If you only turned to stress-eating one time, this wouldn’t be something you’d be worried about, but when it happens often, that’s when it becomes a concern. One way to break this cycle is to increase your awareness of what happened and then say to yourself, “You silly human, you made a human mistake. You are trying hard to change your patterns, and you will get there. You did it this time, but next time we are going to approach things differently”. Now let’s talk about creating a plan on how we will approach things differently the next time.
Reframe + Redirect
Now that you are aware of what you are doing and you don’t get upset at yourself for doing it, it’s time to find some “easy” steps to make some immediate changes that support your health goals. For this step, I want you to make a list of alternative feel-good options that you can turn to instead of eating when you feel that heightened level of stress. I highly recommend you make an actual written list and don’t just rely on yourself to come up with ideas after you are hit with a stressful situation. List as many ideas as you can but come up with at least five that fit well for you. Doing any of these things for even as short as 5-10 minutes is enough time to change your mindset and remove the immediate drive to grab food. My go-to’s are:
- Go for a walk
- Call or text a friend
- Read a book
- Drink a full glass of water
The short pauses created by these activities can allow enough time to reframe my mind and really take the time to consider what I need in that moment to feel better.
Old Habits Die Hard
Now you have a list of alternative options that you can turn to when stressed, but the reality is that old habits can be hard to break. So, the next thing I’d recommend is that you also remove or make it challenging to obtain the food options you turn to when stressed. While you may not have the option to create a perfect environment in all locations you are exposed to (hello work breakrooms!), you have control over what you keep available in your home. Here are some recommendations for keeping your home food environment as supportive as possible (also see this blog from Mike Doehla for more info on this topic).
If at all possible, keep the most challenging foods for you to avoid eating when you are stressed entirely out of the house. This doesn’t mean you can’t eat ice cream ever, but if you struggle to not reach in the freezer for that gallon when you are stressed, keep it out of your house and then go out and grab a cone with some friends when you are in a mindset where you can go out and enjoy it. If you live with other humans that don’t allow you to remove the snacks altogether, you can create some resistance to obtaining the food. This can mean putting the cookies in a cabinet that’s high and tough to reach or storing the chips in the pantry that’s downstairs. That little bit of extra effort needed to get those foods can give you enough time to stop and think and make a different choice that you know will make you feel better.
Additionally, keeping healthy food options in your house that are easily accessible is a good option too. This is not ideal since turning to any food in response to stress is still using food to soothe yourself. But if your goals are related to a healthier life, diet or body composition, it’s likely more supportive for you to grab some berries than potato chips and we can still consider that a win and movement in the right direction.
Find The Root
All of the steps thus far are things you can implement right away to help you change your stress response and develop a new approach to managing stress. However, the most important thing you can do to reduce eating in response to stress is to improve or remove the stressor(s) and root cause(s) of what’s making you feel like you need food to escape a feeling. This is complex and likely requires a deep dive into examining many areas of your life as it’s probably not just one thing that pushed you beyond your capacity to manage your stress.
Here’s an example that many people can relate to. Let’s say that from the awareness step above, you recognize that you continue to struggle with high levels of stress at the time of day, right when you get home from work and family demands take over. Take a step back and determine what changes you can make to improve that situation. For example, would some planning ahead for the week help you feel more calm and under control if you come home and know exactly what you will prepare for dinner that night. Could you prep some food on the weekends when you have more time so you aren’t doing it all after a long day at work? Are there other people in your household that you can delegate some tasks to so it’s not all on your shoulders? Can you take 5 minutes to meditate as soon as you get home to recenter yourself, leave the workday behind, and get focused on your family?
Really take some time to get curious and explore the patterns you are finding with your high-stress times of day and see what changes you can make to help remove the stressful situation before they build up. Then be patient with yourself if it doesn’t work right away. Treat each situation as another experiment to try new things, and eventually, you will find options that work best for you. There also may be an opportunity to get some outside support in this process. Therapists, psychologists, life coaches, and other support professionals can all be amazing resources that I’d highly recommend.
Many of us experience chronic stress daily, and we should not blame ourselves for seeking enjoyable situations (like eating delicious food!) to help us feel good in moments where our capacity to handle stress has been exceeded. The more often we turn to food to alleviate stress, the more often we continue to do that, and a habit is built over time. We have the capacity to change our habits.
The steps I recommend to get a handle on eating in response to stress are to;
- Increase your awareness of this habit
- Don’t beat yourself up if you falter
- Create a list of go-to stress reliever options that support your goals
- Create a supportive food environment at home
- Most importantly – address the source of stress and determine ways to help improve or remove the root cause.
The first four steps can really help break the stress eating cycle a few times, but that final step is the only way to address the real problem and make a change that will stick long-term. Take a screenshot of these steps or create a more personalized list in the note section of your phone to refer back to the next time you’re feeling a stress-eating-attack coming on.