Updated: Oct 6, 2020
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I still struggle with eating when I'm stressed. One part of my healing journey was expressing my emotions without food. After I figured that out, I continued to eat when I was stressed. I felt like eating was the easiest way to relieve stress. It's easier than going to the gym; it works better than taking a few deep breaths. Stress eating was the easy way out.
When the body is stressed, it releases the hormone cortisol. When stress is prolonged, cortisol increases appetite. Stress and cortisol also affect our food preferences. Cortisol triggers cravings of sugar and fat - the comfort foods - because they provide quick energy. Satisfying our desires on a daily basis can have a detrimental effect on wellbeing.
So if our body wants to stress eat, why is it wrong? I don't have the answer to that. I can answer why I wanted to stop stress eating. Before having kids, I wanted to kick all my bad habits. I couldn't pass them on. I came up with these three steps as I was healing.
How to stop stress eating:
Recognize when you are stressed and vulnerable to stress eating
Find something that will relieve that stress
Eat what you planned to eat - then avoid food
What is your reason? Why do you want to stop stress eating? Kids? Health? Self-Improvement? Whatever it is, that is what is going to get you through!
What if you don't realize you stress eat until it is too late? So how do you recognize you are about to stress eat? There are some signs of stress. Once you acknowledge your specific symptoms, you will know when you are vulnerable.
The trick is recognizing what signs you have commonly. When my husband is stressed, his brain shuts down or goes into overdrive, and he gets acne. When I get stressed, I am irritable, anxious, and (you guessed it) hungry. I usually know when I'm stressed because everything is annoying and dumb. As you can imagine, I'm prone to getting hangry - my husband knows this and makes sure I am always well fed!
I don't always recognize stress, but I do know when a binge is possible because my attitude about food changes. I want to buy food instead of eating what I brought for lunch or what I planned for supper. I choose food filled with more sugar and fat than my usual diet. Another sign is I want to keep eating after I eat what I planned.
What To Do Instead of Eat
Sometimes your body lies to you. Yes, it does! When you're stressed, you don't need fatty, sugary foods. You did nothing to require junk food; your hormones just changed. If you give your body those fatty, sugary foods, you are telling it that was the correct response. It will lead to more stress eating.
Let's find a tangible and sustainable way to relieve and reduce the stress that isn't eating. The more you reduce stress, the less likely you are to have anxiety, and the easier it is to relieve stress. The goal is to find an outlet that isn't food. There are many ways to relieve and reduce stress, but they are widely underused. Find two or more that work for you!
The most underused stress reliever is physical exercise. Find the right program that you can do two to three times a week, and your stress levels will go down. The more intense, the more relief. It won't get rid of stress, but it will help.
I recommend kickboxing! I joke that I used to hit hard until I quit my full-time job. It helped to punch something when I couldn't hit my coworkers. It is also a really intense workout so you sweat out the stress. Check out 9Round!
Whenever someone told me to meditate, I thought, "I can't sit there and stare at the wall for two hours." But that's not what meditating is about! Meditating is much easier than you think. Try these simple methods from Mindful Body Green.
TALK IT OUT.
Why do people rant on Facebook? Because they don't have anyone to rant to in real life! We need to get it out one way or another; we just need the right outlet. Sometimes getting it out is the best way to get it off your shoulders. So find someone safe and spill the beans.
Put on your favorite sit-com, listen to your favorite comedian, or boot up the internet for some fresh memes. I love cat videos; they make me laugh uncontrollably. Whatever you find funny, you have a good excuse to consume it when you are stressed.
Recently, NBC launched a new show called "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist." Long story short, I am Zoey at the beginning of the pilot. Music doesn't speak to me like it does others, but I know it can help you express your deepest desires and feelings. So when you are stressed, crank your favorite tunes.
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE.
Putting life in perspective can help relieve stress. When I think about how I have a roof over my head, I can put food on the table, and I have a car to drive, my problems seem to become less critical. When you are thankful for what you have, you become less hung up on the little grievances of life.
WRITE IT DOWN.
Another version of talking it out, writing down your thoughts can help you process what you are feeling. If you keep it all bottled up, you are more likely to get stressed, then more likely to stress eat. By journaling even once a week, your stress level can go down.
PLAY WITH YOUR PET.
Spot wants to cuddle and play with you! If you don't have a pet, this is your excuse. Many studies have found that pets reduce stress and increase happiness. So whether cat, dog, hamster, or bearded dragon, get out that toy, put aside a few minutes, and play with your pet.
Many studies have shown the benefits of cuddling. Some include a reduction in pain, deepening of the relationship, decrease in loneliness, sleep better, reduce stress, and bolster the immune system. Cuddling includes hugging, high-fives, and hand-holding. You don't need an S.O. to cuddle!
For a while, I was into puzzles. It took just the right amount of brainpower to put together, but not enough for it to be challenging. I got to use a different part of my brain that I never use, and that was very relaxing. Everyone needs a creative outlet; here is a list.
CUT OUT STRESSFUL ACTIVITIES.
Do you babysit brats every Saturday night? You don't have too. Do you volunteer for a disorganized homeless shelter? You don't have too. Do you go to a lifeless book club? You don't have too. Stop doing the activities that stress you out!
50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers
Eating Disorder Recovery Journal Part 1 by Progress Not Perfection Co
Eat/Do What You Planned
Being stressed is the worst! What makes it even detrimental is when it wrecks your plans. Don't let it mess up your day, week, or month. Don't change your plans. Go where you planned to go, eat what you intended to eat, and do what you wanted to do.
The most significant part of recovery is getting back to normal. Average gets a little messy after stress eating becomes a habit because sometimes it's hard to remember what normal was. But normal is what you want, and healthy doesn't involve stress eating. You can't retaliate for bad behavior or a spike in emotions. That leads to worse habits.
I would encourage you to continue with your day, not like nothing happened, but like you aren't going to let stress ruin your life. Your job, your mother-in-law, your relationship status shouldn't dictate your happiness or your waistline.
There is no magic trick to stop stress eating. It takes time and practice to end a detrimental habit. You need to work on it every day. Healing doesn't happen overnight, but healing is possible!
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