Overcoming Stress Eating

Stress eating is simply this: responding to stress by eating. Why does this happen? People stress eat because it works. Cortisol, a hormone produced when stress is released, actually decreases after we eat high-fat, sugary or salty foods. When you reach for a bag of chips or home-baked cookies after a stressful event, it makes sense that you would continue to do so again and again — because it is actually helping you relax!

By Laura Lange, LCSW

Receiving a critical email from your boss. Being called out in a meeting among your peers. Your child calling you the worst name you have ever heard. Getting a call that you owe a debt — and it’s more money than you currently have in the bank.

What do these situations have in common? They all cause stress. These scenarios can make your stomach clench tightly, your heart pound and your shoulders tense. Maybe you’ll feel like you screwed up — that you’ve done something wrong or that someone has treated you unfairly

There is another common thread in these above examples: I have seen all of these situations lead to someone “stress eating” in our treatment center — where we treat loss of control eating

What is stress? 

Stress is your body’s way of protecting yourself from a threat or sense of danger. Stress protects us to stay focused and alert — especially if we are in an emergency or a challenging situation.

When you feel stress, your body responds by kicking in the “fight or flight” response. This floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol and prepares your body for action:

  • Your muscles clench
  • Your senses quicken
  • Your blood pressure rises
  • Your heart beats faster

Intermittent stress is helpful; it helps us concentrate, respond quickly or act in an emergency.

But, here’s the problem: unfortunately, the nervous system isn’t very good at differentiating between real or emotional danger. This means that, at times, it becomes continually activated. This means that some people will never be able to truly relax. This continual activation can lead to chronic stress which is physically harmful. If anyone has experienced chronic stress, they know how terrible it can feel!

Why do people stress eat? 

Stress eating is simply this: responding to stress by eating. Most likely, people who stress eat will turn to highly-palatable sugary or salty foods like cookies, ice cream, chips or fries. Why does this happen? 

People stress eat because it works!

Cortisol, a hormone produced when stress is released, actually decreases after we eat high-fat, sugary or salty foods. When you reach for a bag of chips or home-baked cookies after a stressful event, it makes sense that you would continue to do so again and again — because it is actually helping you relax!

There’s another hormone at play here, too. Ghrelin, which is considered the “hunger hormone,” actually increases in response to stress for a certain population of people. And, these people are pre-disposed to loss of control eating. If you fall in this population, you might actually feel hungrier after a stressful event — which is a double-edged sword. (This also explains why you might have a problem with stress eating and binge eating but your partner or best friend doesn’t).

Overcoming stress eating is a challenge because our lives are stressful and because food is all around us! Unlike drugs and alcohol, which may also be used as a crutch to reduce stress, food is both readily available and socially acceptable.

Stress eating and emotions 

So, yes, stress eating works. But most of us would agree that stress eating is not a good thing. Eating these highly-palatable foods may take the feelings of stress away – but it’s only for a short period of time.

Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anger or anxiety. And, many people, as children, were not taught how to identify and cope with these uncomfortable emotions. Perhaps we were raised to “get over it” and not feel our emotions. Or, perhaps we fear what would happen if we allow ourselves to feel these uncomfortable emotions — so it makes sense as to why we are habituated to run away from them!

Overcoming stress eating 

If you always react to stress and negative emotions by eating, then you are probably not learning how to cope with uncomfortable emotions without food. And this will create many problems in the long-term. I wanted to share what we teach our patients here in treatment in the hopes that it can help you reduce your fall-back on emotional or stress eating.

Tip 1: Notice and feel ALL of your emotions.

One of the first steps to overcoming stress eating is to allow yourself to feel all of your feelings — even the uncomfortable ones like anxiety, sadness and shame. Once you understand how you are feeling, you can start to break the habit of eating away your emotions. You can start learning new ways to cope that is NOT numbing them with food.

Tip 2: Find true pleasure in life.

Make a list of pleasurable activities that you truly enjoy and that also help you decrease stress. Plan out pleasurable activities throughout the day with friends and family. Add these activities to your daily schedule and stick to the schedule — even if you don’t feel like doing it! Try new activities that could help you bust stress: yoga, meditation, mindful walking in nature or picking up a new hobby (knitting, reading, photography)

Tip 3: Make sleep a priority.

Focus on your sleep; good sleep hygiene is key in overcoming stress eating.

  • Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even on the weekends.
  • Maintain a regular routine to help you relax in the evenings.
  • Take a warm bath at night.
  • Avoid screens for an hour before you get into bed.
  • Seek professional help, if necessary.

These tips will help you fall asleep better and help you decrease stress.

Learn more about how good sleep reduces binge eating episodes. 

Tip 4: Eat regular meals.

Eat regularly during the day, about every four to five hours, on a schedule. It is essential to not wait until you are very hungry to eat and it is also helpful to not graze (snack) throughout the day. Waiting too long to eat can make you feel “hangry” and vulnerable to overeating – we want to avoid that!

I hope these examples above help you understand WHY you stress eat and that you CAN identify a few constructive ways to help you stop the habit of stress eating. With these realistic and practical changes, you can create a healthier lifestyle and be better equipped to handle stressors as they arise.

Get help for stress eating

If you are interested in learning more about binge eating disorder treatment, please let us know how we can help. Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health Centers provide specialized care for eating disorders and mental health conditions for adults, children, and adolescents. Our experienced clinicians treat:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Bulimia
  • Compulsive Overeating
  • Diabulimia
  • Mood and Anxiety Disorders 
  • Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED)
  • Trauma-related Conditions

And, we see people recovering from these conditions every day. 

If you are hurting, or if you feel like stress eating or emotional eating has gotten out of your control, please call us at (877) 825-8584 to speak confidentially with a Master’s-level clinician. There is no cost to make the call. Please reach out to get the help you need. You deserve it

Learn more about night eating and binge eating.

Laura Lange, LCSW is Director of the Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery Program at Eating Recovery Center, Illinois.

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