Stop Eating Your Stress!

Stress eating is very effective. This is because we can’t simultaneously engage our Sympathetic Nervous System (stress response) and our parasympathetic nervous system (eating response). If you eat when you are stressed, you will calm down….temporarily. You will also build a connection in your brain that says, “I’m stressed. Cookies take stress away. Yes. I should eat cookies”. The more you engage in stress eating, the stronger this connection will become. Then, you if you decide to go on a diet, your stress system will likely freak out because you only know how to solve stress by eating. What adds to this problem is that our stress response is rather archaic. It can’t tell the difference between actual danger and our run of the mill stressful every day problems. So, when you think you need to outrun a deadline at work, your body thinks you need to outrun a tiger and reacts accordingly. To do this, it puts sugar in your blood stream to ready you for fight or flight. Then, it assumes you have effectively fought off the tiger, so it puts more sugar in your blood to “replace” the sugar you would have used with the tiger. To keep the sugar in a utilizable state, it creates insulin resistance. Now, on top of the stress and stress eating, you have told your body to help you gain weight. It becomes a vicious cycle. The good news is you have a few things you can do!

  • Breathe. By increasing your oxygen and specifically extending your exhale, you can calm your brain. The next time you feel stressed, breathe in for about 6 counts, hold for 2-3 counts and breathe out for 8-10 counts. This doesn’t need to be exact, but the exhale needs to be at least a couple of counts longer than the inhale. Do this 5-10 times. You will likely feel something physically shift because it will bring your parasympathetic nervous system online (no food needed!).
  • Get some sleep. Sleep is usually the first thing to go when we are stressed or pressed for time, but that is when we need it most. If you (like me) struggle with insomnia when stressed, use the extended exhale breathing at night. Also, having a night time routine and minimizing screen time before bed are crucial.
  • Exercise. Like sleep, exercise usually fades quickly during stressful times and we need it. In Spark, Eric Hagerman and John Ratey discuss the impact exercise has on the brain. One of the pieces that stood out for me was that if you exercise when stressed, you can actually utilize the stress hormones as they are intended and then you will no longer marinate in their toxins. Also, exercise releases dopamine which can block the food cravings stress can create. Fun huh?!
  • Consider trauma therapy. Our inability to cope with stress gets impaired early on when we haven’t been given the appropriate tools or we grow up in an unsafe environment. While this can mean abuse, it can also mean growing up in a family where emotions were not addressed or valued. If any of this applies to you, consider EMDR Therapy or Accelerated Resolution Therapy to heal any past wounds that may be contributing to your relationship with food. Trauma occurs on a spectrum, so the things that hold you back may not be considered trauma in the typical sense. However, anything that creates emotional distress and stays with you in any way is trauma.

The next time you feel stressed and find yourself reaching for food, breathe, take a walk and have a nap. Then, think about contacting me!

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Weber State University and a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Utah. She has been working in the mental health field since 2001.

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