When you are feeling stressed or anxious do you notice yourself trying to soothe or calm that uneasy feeling with food? Do you notice yourself automatically reaching to nervously snack on something to make yourself feel better? If so, you’re not alone.
If you’re one of the many millions of people who are “stress eaters” then this article will help shed some light onto the habitual behavior that keeps you reaching for food instead of reaching for a more effective stress management technique.
The interesting part about stress eating is that it never really helps. It may feel like a temporary relief from the real world, but eating when you’re stressed out is only more cause for concern. Now you have to worry about all those calories, the self-critical voice in your head and the uncomfortable feeling of eating when you weren’t really hungry.
Even though we may consciously know eating won’t help ease the stress—and we know that it really only makes things worse in the long run, we do it anyways. Human behavior is strange and ironic. We are driven to do something—to act out a behavior—despite the fact that very soon afterwards we won’t feel great about it. But instead of learning our lessons we go back time and time again to ineffective strategies. What’s really going on here? What are we really up against here?
Stress-Induced Eating is on the Rise
I’ve personally been a stress eater for most of my life and the more I studied this issue, the more I was amazed and came to understand that sometimes our habitual behaviors and what stands in between us and change are deeply rooted instinctual urges driving us to act in certain ways because of our make up as human beings.
Not surprisingly, research has consistently linked weight gain to stress. With stress on the rise in our culture and over two thirds of the population overweight or obese, it’s hard to deny that the consequences of chronic stress are a key contributing factor to America’s insatiable appetite and the obesity epidemic.
Here are some eye opening statistics when it comes to stress:
- According to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale.
- In 2011, 39 percent of men and women reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a major coping mechanism for stress.
- Research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behavior, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking.
As I discussed in “Unhooked: A Holistic Approach to Ending Your Struggle with Food”, why we overeat as a culture is a complex, multidimensional issue involving physiological, behavioral, emotional, mental, spiritual factors rooted in an environment that encourages and drives people to over-consume.
And one of these factors is certainly rooted in how we experience, process and manage our stress response on a day to day basis. Even though we may intuitively know that stress impacts our eating habits, it’s worth fully understanding why that is to help you become more aware of what’s going on when you’re stress is driving you to crave a muffin or cookies instead of being willing to manage your stress directly and actually heal the root of the problem.
Here are 5 Fascinating Reasons Stress Causes Overeating
1. Your Body is Stuck in Prehistoric Times
It might seem hard to believe but our bodies weren’t designed to live in this modern era of fast food restaurants and overabundant food supply. Your body was designed to live in prehistoric times —that’s right, in a time when stressors were real (you were actually being hunted by a tiger and not haunted by the impending doom of your taxes) and food was scarce, or at least not available for sale at every primitive corner store.
There’s a mismatch between our physiological reactions and processes and the reality we now live in—and it’s wreaking havoc on our health.
When it comes right down to it, our bodies are designed for one thing and one thing only: our basic survival.
The stress response is a perfect example of this. When you see a bear in the woods, your body has an inherent instinct to protect you from threat by automatically launching you into a stress response most appropriately called the fight or flight response. Your body releases stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, your heart beats faster, your blood moves to your extremities gearing you up to either fight for your life or run like hell in the other direction. Cortisol also triggers uptake of blood sugar so that all your energy can go towards fighting your impending threat. This means that stress literally lowers your blood sugar, which eventually triggers your body to seek out food to bring your blood sugar back up to the normal range.
Once upon a time, in a not-so-distant land, this stress response tended to be an actual physical threat. Once adrenaline cycles out of the system and cortisol is left hanging out, it signals the body to refuel after that intense bout of physical exertion: after all, fighting a bear can be very exhausting! You would need to pack on some extra fat storage so you can tap into that reserve the next time that bear comes around eyeing you for dinner.
These days, we chronically face “perceived” stress within our more sedentary lifestyles while we’re sitting at our desks or on the couch worrying about the upcoming bills, that embarrassing comment you made at work earlier today or that project that’s due in the morning. But your brain and body don’t know the difference—it’s as if you never got the memo, that these worries aren’t actually threatening your survival and you’re not really exerting energy to defend your very existence. But the cortisol tells you to replenish anyways and in comes the deep instinctual urge to automatically reach for those calorie-dense foods to make sure that you have enough energy to survive the next bout of stress.
This just might be why exercise is such a powerful and proven stress buster for our modern day society—so we can actually burn off some of those calories that our bodies would have burned if we were actually being chased by a bear. Ready to get moving but don’t know where to start? Here’s 15 ways to make exercise a regular part of your everyday life.
2. Stress Saps Your Willpower and Unleashes the Impulsive Side of You
Over time, we went from fending for ourselves to living in larger and larger communities and as our societies became more evolved, our brain evolved as well. The latest upgrade to our brain involved a very fancy processing system located right behind our nice big foreheads, called the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). This high-powered section of brain allows us to think about our futures, save for retirement, set goals, regulate impulsiveness and have more self-awareness. It is the most evolved part of our brain that also helps us to resist temptation. These are all tasks related to you saying “no” to that piece of chocolate cake because you want to achieve your long-term health goals. When you flex your PFC, it prevents you from binging on everything in sight because it’s part of your rational mind —you don’t really want to eat all that, do you?
The only catch is that as soon as you turn on the stress response in your body (think of it as a more primitive brain response) it literally inhibits your PFC and your rational mind flies right out the window. If you think about it, this makes sense. When you’re being faced by a serious threat like a bear, you don’t want your mind to step in the way so you get caught up in thinking about whether you should run one way or the other or get distracted by the thought of what you’re going to make for dinner that night. Stress literally makes you more impulsive—as a matter of survival.
Apply this to what we already discussed about the biological impulse to replenish your fuel for future duals with bears and combine this with the direct trigger to unleash the most impulsive side of you and what you have is a starting to look like a recipe for overeating disaster.
The good news is that by simply taking 5 minutes to ground yourself in the present moment and start to slow down your breathing and switch from breathing through your mouth to breathing through your nose, you can start to reverse the physiological stress response, reactivate your PFC, boost your self-control and refocus on what you really want: is it that piece of chocolate cake or to feel amazing when you wake up in the morning?
3. Stress Makes you Crave High-fat, Sugary Foods—Yay!
Stress is really shaping up to paint quite the pretty overeating picture, but the story doesn’t end there. To put the icing on the cake (no pun intended) stress has the uncanny ability to not only kick our butts into seeking out food, making us more impulsive and lack self-control, it also drives us towards high-fat, sugar laden “comfort” foods.
After you eat these unhealthy, calorie-rich foods, research shows that the part of the brain that processes stress becomes less active, effectively calming you down from the stressful event. This undoubtedly creates a strong association with these foods, encouraging you to become more dependent on them as a stress coping mechanism. This is also because foods abnormally high in sugar, fat and salt create a hyper-pleasurable response in the brain and encourages you to become “hooked” on the foods and continue to seek them out in future moments when you’re “down” looking for a “high”.
Stress is depleting, so you’re more likely to automatically reach for something “easy” like fast food rather than think and plan out making a meal from scratch. When you’re feeling like this, try to find a compromise. If you can, try to take five minutes (as described above) to sit quietly by yourself and at least try to reconnect with your rational mind. If you’re still hungry, opt for an “easy” whole food option instead. Reach for a fruit or grab a smoothie as a delicious snack or meal that will still satisfy your need for something sweet but unhook you from the grip of processed foods.
Make a plan ahead of time, and ask yourself, what can I reach for when I’m too stressed and tired to deal with making food?
4. Stress Steals Your Zzzzzz’s
Considering how fast-paced our lives have become and how much it’s affecting our stress levels, it’s becoming harder and harder to simply turn off the switch at night, let go of our worries and easily fall asleep.
Research shows that sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain and that’s bad news for Americans. According the to American Psychological Association, 44 percent of Americans reported lying awake at night as a result of stress.
According to Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct: Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes it more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptations. It also makes it more difficult to control your emotions, focus your attention, or find the energy to tackle the big “I will” power challenges.”
Sleep deprivation impairs that very essential part of your brain, the PFC, that helps regulate impulse control. Get less than 6 hours of sleep a night and you’re more likely to automatically reach for unhealthy foods, skip the gym and forget your goals when it’s most important. If you find it hard to fall asleep at night, you might want to consider using one of these 5 all-natural sleep aids to help you fall asleep.
5. Stress Saps those Feel-Good Chemicals
Chronic stress can be a major drain—not only on energy levels but also on mood. Cortisol, the “stress hormone” that gets released during the stress response can lead to a reduction in important “feel-good” neurotransmitters in the brain like serotonin. When these chemicals start to get unbalanced, it can lead to unstable moods and disrupted sleep and eating patterns—all of which can easily trigger overeating.
Feeling crappy is a very common trigger to overeating. So you need to figure out what really makes you feel good. Not just the fleeting pleasure of something fatty and sweet, but something that actually boosts your feel-good chemicals.
You already know the impulsive ways that most people manage stress: shopping, TV, eating, drinking, smoking and playing video games and mindlessly roaming the internet, yet these are not actually proven strategies that are going to leave you feeling better, they usually only leave you feeling unsatisfied, discontent and wanting more.
Research shows that the most effective activities to actually boost your mood include spending time with friends and loved ones, going for a massage, taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk, sleeping in a few extra hours, short meditations or even going to church. These are all proven ways that you can effectively manage stress and boost those feel good chemicals in your brain.
Putting an End to Stress-Induced Overeating
Some of the best advice I can give you, if you’re serious about ending your struggle with food and no longer living out the patterns of a stress-eater is to learn how to become more mindful and short daily mindfulness practices can certainly help you do this. Most people don’t even know how stressed out they are because they’ve been experiencing chronic stress for so long. Learning basic meditation techniques is a wonderful place to start. Meditation can also help you learn to become a more mindful eater. Check out these 10 Mindful Eating tips to Help you Eat Less. Couple this with daily walks and you’ll start noticing a big difference almost immediately.
If you’re new to meditation, I recommend looking into Pema Chödrön’s “How to Meditate” course. She’s an amazing teacher who’s helped me enormously on my journey. (I also highly recommend her “Getting Unstuck” audio course or any of her books for that matter!)
Don’t beat yourself up for tuning to food when you’re stressed, that will only make matters worse. Show yourself some compassion; we’re all learning how to end our struggles, give up our addictions and live more peaceful, fulfilled lives. Remember what’s most important to you and reconnect with that feeling.
Take 5 minutes right now to simply breathe and be with your breath. Feel your body from the inside-out, how does it feel in this moment?
Aloha from the Big Island of Hawaii
Laura Dawn, Author of Mindful Eating for Dummies.