Managing Stress Eating: It’s Not about Always Saying No

03 Apr 2017 8:21 AM | TCME Admin (Administrator)

by Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC, Behavior Leader at Green Mountain at Fox Run

Have you ever thought to yourself: “It’s been a tough day, I just want a big bowl of ice cream.”? 

Or, “After the day I had, I deserve a treat.” 

Stress eating is very common and it really does work in terms of alleviating stress – at least in the moment. So we don’t want to demonize stress eating, but instead sprinkle some mindfulness on it and consider how often we stress eat, how much food we’re eating and in what other ways we can cope with stress.

Why We Stress Eat

First, a few words about stress and why we eat this way. 

The stress response, in a nutshell, is a physical response that happens in our body when we are faced with a danger. When prehistoric human ran into a saber-toothed tiger, the body went into automatic survival mode, aka, fight-flight-or-freeze. We get a surge of adrenaline and cortisol, the body’s stress hormones. The heart races, muscles tighten, pupils dilate, and breathing rate increases, among other physical changes. This physical stress response enables us to survive a life or death situation. 

That said, how many of us are faced with tigers on a regular basis? Few, if any. 

Instead, many of us are faced with lower level stressors on a more ongoing basis. For example, we may have a demanding job, busy household, relationship strains, or perhaps we worry excessively, or place high expectations on ourselves. This is known as chronic stress, in which the source of stress may be less traumatic compared to say a car accident or a life-threatening situation. 

With chronic stress, however, the lower level stress is ongoing which causes a physical reaction that is ongoing -- such as a higher blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased muscle tension, etc. Because the stress response is designed for survival, in moments of stress our cognitive functioning gets compromised, and our brains don’t automatically know if it’s a life or death situation and automatically reacts as though it is life or death, just in case we need to fight off that tiger. 

Of course, when we’re in this chronic state it doesn’t feel good of course. That’s where stress eating comes in. Because we’re designed to live in homeostasis, or balance, our brains and bodies are working hard to find a way to bring that stress down. 

A few things happen when we eat. First, because digestion happens best when we’re calm, as soon as we start the process of eating (chewing, salivating, swallowing, etc.), we activate the parasympathetic response, aka the relaxation response , also known as the rest-and-digest process. 

Secondly, think about what you choose to eat when you’re stressed. Celery? Probably not. Rice cakes? Not usually. Generally we choose high carb, high fat, sugary, and/or salty food. There’s purpose behind this: so we can tell the brain to stop the cortisol. When we put these foods in our bodies, we’re giving ourselves the energy needed to survive a life-or-death situation, therefore, our bodies stop sending out cortisol and creating those uncomfortable body changes. 

Again, eating really does work…in the moment. Unfortunately, eating this way too often can have negative effects on our physical and emotional health and well-being. 

What to Do Instead

Have no fear! There are other ways to activate that parasympathetic response. 

Ready for the magic? Here it is:

• Meditation

• Listening to music

• Aromatherapy

• Drawing, painting or other artwork

• Meditation

• Playing an instrument

• Taking a bath

• A cup of tea

• Meditation

• Movement (aka exercise)

Are you amazed by the magic yet? Here’s more:

• Deep breaths

• Talking to a friend

• Meditation

• Fresh air

• Journaling

• Listening to comedy

• Getting a pedi or mani

I know, you’re completely impressed. Not so much, eh? 

Often we want that magic answer, but the truth is, there isn’t one. What we do know is that these activities really do activate the relaxation response and can be the additional coping strategies we add to our bag of tricks, in addition to eating. 

Emotional overeating and/or binge eating is much like a freight train that goes barreling into the pleasure centers of our brain, alleviating stress in the short term, but depending on the quantity and frequency, frequently leaving us feeling guilty, shameful, maybe disgusted, not to mention the physical repercussions. 

These alternative activities aren’t freight trains, but more gentle little shots of pleasure and relaxation, without the damaging aftermath. 

Meditation, Meditation, Meditation

By the way, did you notice meditation in there once or, say -- four times? There’s a reason for that. Meditation is one of the best and most direct ways to activate the parasympathetic system and to help alleviate stress. There is a growing body of evidence on this subject. For more information, check out the movie The Connection where many of the greats like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Andrew Weil, Herbert Benson and more, talk about how mediation and mindfulness is so helpful. 

Add, Don’t Subtract

Now that you’re more informed on the process of managing stress eating, I’ll leave you with a suggestion.When you think about changing your habit of stress eating, don’t think about taking something away. Instead, think about adding to your practice. That is, add mindfulness and mindful eating to your stress eating and see what happens. It’s amazing what a dose of awareness can do for our “auto-pilot” mode. 

Shiri Macri is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and leads the behavioral program at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s healthy weight and wellness residential center in Vermont. She uses her extensive background in working with anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and mindfulness to help women overcome struggles with eating, exercise and weight.

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