What Is Stress Eating?

Stress is most likely one of the biggest issues in American culture. The average American deals with large amounts of stress due to a variety of reasons ranging from financial to relational. Cortisol increases in the brain with stress and has been researched to increase appetite. Stress is not only difficult to deal with, but it also creates a number of bad habits designed by our mind as coping strategies. One of those is stress eating. We’re all guilty of doing it. Stress eating is a common phenomenon and it shows. Americans continuously rank as some of the most overweight people in the world. So, it comes to no surprise that high levels of stress and our current culture of food make a dangerous combination. When you stress eat your body is using food as comfort. Foods high in sugar and fats can contain similar addictive qualities to drugs. Like drugs, food helps the brain release the feel-good hormone known as dopamine. This hormone helps alleviate some of the stress and helps us cope. Yet, the impact overeating has on our body can be detrimental. These concerns include weight gain, isolation (due to conflicts in social interaction), irritability, low energy, the risk of heart disease, and many more. Many of you have perhaps heard the saying “she/he is eating their feelings”, well this is, in fact, a simple way of really acknowledging our current culture. From our younger years, we are often told we shouldn’t cry, we shouldn’t get angry, we shouldn’t get sad. This often leaves us confused and dumbfounded. After all, at that age, we don’t fully grasp a deep level understanding of our feelings. All we know is that we’re feeling uncomfortable and something is not right. These lessons often get deep-rooted and eventually when we grow up we function around those messages. Think about a recent bad day you’ve had where you have been left feeling sadness, anger, or worry. How unbearable was this feeling? Maybe it was strong enough that you went straight home (or to a restaurant) and ate. Then you maybe thought, “I’m feeling __________, I deserve to eat what I want.” Before you know it, you’ve eaten too much and you begin to feel shame. This is not an uncommon scenario. We have such a difficult time dealing with our feelings that we look for whatever will bring us joy/pleasure/distraction. 

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 So, what to do?

There are of course some helpful things that can provide support. Yet, the reality is that strengthening our willpower and learning to cope with our feelings in a healthy way will take work. First things first. As I mentioned before, stress eating is a coping strategy for dealing with the discomfort of our feelings. This means our first step will be to acknowledge that stress is occurring and identify the feelings associated with it. Are you feeling sad, angry, tired, scared? What is the root of that stress? It’s important for us to understand deeper meanings. For example, you may be stressed that you have too much school work and not enough time. The feeling may be fear. Fear that you will not finish in time and possibly fail. Failing means you won’t pass and may have to take a class again or deal with some other reprimand. Understanding this feeling can help us because we are identifying the root of our feeling. Next, now that you have identified the feeling… What do you do? Find something to help distract you or that makes you feel good during high stress. Take a walk, listen to music, watch a show, meditate, go to the gym, write, listen to helpful resources (podcasts), call a friend, or focus on a hobby. Replacing coping strategies is not easy, after all, you have most likely been using stress eating for a long time. So be kind to yourself. One tip is to begin understanding the stress eating by differentiating between when you’re eating to cope and when you’re eating because you are hungry. They are not the same and often times we can identify this by paying attention to our bodies. As someone who deals with these same issues, I can honestly say that what is helping me the most is being able to sit in discomfort and learn to process. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I have realized that the more I learn to sit and feel, the easier it gets and the more control I have in the long run. 

 For some of us dealing with the root of the problem is extremely difficult to do alone. It is always recommended to speak with a mental health professional if you need support. A trained therapist can help you and provide a nurturing environment where you can explore some possible causes of stress eating. Getting mental health services is often stigmatized, but the reality is that we all deal with issues and need help from time to time. Other options to consider is checking in with a medical professional about ways to support new healthy eating habits. Gaining access to education is one of the important pieces on your journey because it opens doors and opportunities on your road to success. Setting limits and boundaries is also important because many of us deal with social pressures, family, friends, etc. Being firm about our goals and desires is important. Feel comfortable declining food if you’re not hungry or even including a friend to engage in healthier practices. Support is crucial and for many of us, we simply have to look at our social inventory to find people who can be by our side while we adjust to new coping methods and a healthier lifestyle.

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