Stress = Emotional Eating: The All-Too-Common Equation

This post is part of Healthy Weight Week. This week is meant to help change the conversation around weight during the third week in January. That’s when New Year diets, cleanses, and “new you” efforts start to fall by the wayside because they’re, well, impossible to sustain.

Join us all week for a look at how you can put the fundamental elements of healthy living in place in your life for the long term. 

Welcome to a liberating approach free of food fears, punishing exercise and negative thoughts about your body! Welcome to life!

Perhaps the most common struggle we hear among the women who come to Green Mountain at Fox Run is emotional eating. These women aren’t particularly unique. Emotional eating has become the wolf hiding behind the bush, ready to jump out at most people who struggle with their weight.

There are a number of reasons for this but they all boil down to one big reason: stress.

The Power of Chronic Stress Triggers

Stress is no stranger to most of us.

And some of it is good. A little bit of stress can help energize us, motivating us to get things done. It also serves as a warning system – the famous fight or flight syndrome that signals the body to produce hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol to help focus and give us energy us when we need to avoid danger.

Problems arise, however, when the stress turns chronic. We get stuck in fight, flight or even freeze, unable to effectively manage the real or perceived dangers that come our way.

These days, a lot of the dangers are perceived, especially for women who struggle with weight, including:

  • Fear about what we eat, whether it be calories or “toxins” in food that we hear so much about in the media.
  • Fear that we’re not enough, that we need to do more, be better – whether it be as a mother, a wife, a professional, a friend.
  • Fear that we’re unacceptable because of our body size, which can be a real danger in this day of rampant weight stigma.

This last fear leads to an all-too-common stressor – dieting, or restricting what you eat to lose weight.

This creates a push-pull relationship with food that has both physical and psychological consequences in the form of unsupportive eating and feelings of deprivation, guilt and failure.

The ultimate consequence, however, is that food ends up as the go-to for women who struggle with weight as their bodies demand it to meet basic needs and their minds demand it for emotional solace.

What’s Stress Got to Do With Weight?

If we’re eating to manage stress regularly, we will likely be eating when we’re not hungry. That means we’ll be taking in more food than our bodies need.

Of course, that can lead to weight gain. But there’s another way stress affects weight.

When we’re stressed, we’re in survival mode.

Our bodies’ evolutionary response is to hold onto energy (aka calories) so we can survive. For example, back in prehistoric days when we were escaping tigers (or other, equally deadly carnivores), we needed energy to run.

Hormonal changes occur that increase our appetite and tell our bodies to store fat. These changes optimize chances of survival in a life-or-death situation. Our bodies can’t necessarily tell if it is a life or death situation so chronic, lower-grade stress causes our bodies to react in the same way.

What’s the remedy? In the face of stressors, shift into the relaxation response.

The most efficient way to do that is through breath work. Take a few deep breaths when you’re feeling stressed. Maybe a few minutes after a heated exchange, or in the midst of a stressful day.

To build better access to your relaxation response, consider taking time regularly during the day to do some deep breathing. Even if it’s five minutes at the start and end of your day.

Ending the Cycle of Emotional Overeating

So deep breathing is one step in the process of getting off the hamster wheel of eating and weight struggles. Another step is to become more mindful.

Mindfulness is quite the rage these days because it offers a real way to change our attitudes, thoughts and behaviors.

That’s because we begin to pay attention to what’s going on in the moment. It allows us the leave the past behind, bring more perspective to the current situation, and worry less about the future.

For many women who struggle with weight, emotional eating has become a habit, engrained in their brains through neural pathways that deepen each time we emotionally eat. Over time, like any habit, it becomes our automatic reaction to certain stressors.

In the middle of a hectic day, when we walk past the candy jar on our office mate’s desk, we automatically, without thinking, reach for something to sweeten our day.  

Then the tapes start running: I shouldn’t have eaten that. It’s not good for me. I’ll never lose weight this way. I blew it. I might as well eat more. And forget about that meal I was going to cook later. I’ll just stop at the drive-thru on the way home.

 The practice of mindful eating can change those habits and tapes.

In the middle of a hectic day, when we walk past the candy jar on our office mate’s desk, we think before we take a piece of candy. Do I really want it? Is it really going to help me, or is it going to add stress on top of stress? What can I do that will really add some sweetness to this moment?

Sounds simple, and it can be. But just like the habit of emotional eating, we need to develop the habit of mindful eating. Here’s how to do it.

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3 Steps to Manage Emotional Eating

When the urge to eat strikes, walk through these steps.

Step 1 Take a breath.

This is the essence of mindful eating. When you pause before diving in, you can become more connected to how you’re feeling and what you are thinking.

Step 2 Ask yourself – Am I hungry?

Check in with your hunger cues. If you are hungry, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.

Step 3 If you’re not hungry – ask yourself – What’s up?

What am I thinking? Feeling? And most importantly, Am I willing to try an alternative first before turning to food to self-soothe?

An alternative to food can be anything that is soothing to you – some deep breathing, a cup of tea, a bath, calling a friend, drawing, reading, playing music, etc.

If you’re not willing to find an alternative and just want to eat, then…well…eat.

But eat mindfully – and again, check in with your cues, choose what you want, and be mindful while eating by paying attention to your senses, emotions, and thoughts.

Remember that it’s ok to eat emotionally; food can definitely be a coping tool.  But to use food as an effective coping tool, we want to use it in a way that truly helps us feel better. If we use it too often, it doesn’t do that.

A Word About Meditation

A regular meditation practice can be key to becoming a skilled mindful eater, and improving stress & emotional resilience.

The benefits of meditation are many. In particular, it has a lot to offer when it comes to stress and emotional eating. By regularly meditating, you can find you focus better as anxiety levels drop and you become less impulsive.

It can also improve self-esteem, resilience, and optimism while it helps you relax.

However, many people react negatively to the idea of meditation: “I don’t have time for that.” “I can’t sit still that long.” Our 5-Minute Meditation series is just the thing to help you begin this practice. It can help to schedule a regular time to meditate daily. Morning, before all the rush begins, works well for many people.

With a regular mindfulness practice (whether that be meditation, breathing, or something else) we often find less negative emotion associated with the challenges and stressors we face, and with that comes better emotion regulation and happier hormone activity within our bodies.

All that adds up to less stress, which typically means feeling less depressed, anxious, sad or frustrated – and, therefore, less likely to eat emotionally as a result of the chronic stress in our lives.

Also, be sure to check back here each day this week for blog posts about components of achieving and sustaining your healthy weight.

Stay tuned for the rest of Healthy Weight Week! Visit our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find and share memes, videos, and infographics.

What’s one thing can you do today to begin practicing mindfulness?

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