Everyone battles stress differently. For many, emotional eating is a common occurrence when stressed out. Emotional eating can show itself in different ways, from eating when you’re feeling overwhelmed in your daily life to binging when you’ve had a bad day at work. Some people even eat out of boredom. However, when stress eating becomes a regular occurrence, it can wreak havoc on your physical and emotional well-being.
What is stress?
Stress is not a mental health condition such as depression and anxiety disorder, but a symptom that is connected to our mental health in many ways. Stress is quite literally the reaction to feeling pressured or threatened. There are different levels at which stress can be experienced. Individual stress is one form of stress, for example when you’re overwhelmed with responsibilities. Stress can also impact a small group, like a family dealing with issues. It can even impact large groups at once. For instance, a city that is dealing with a natural disaster like a hurricane or wildfire.
There are two different types of stress a person can experience:
Acute stress happens within a few minutes or hours of an event. It usually lasts for a short period of time, a few days or weeks, but can be super intense. This could come with a sudden natural disaster, harassment, or event.
Chronic stress is much more long-term and generally keeps coming back. You might feel chronic stress if your day to day life carries a lot of responsibilities, or if work is constantly difficult.
How does stress impact the body?
Stress can impact us physically in many ways. Sometimes it can be a good thing, where it keeps us alert and motivated to avoid danger. But in most cases, stress can cause some not-so-great side effects in our lives.
Stress can cause the muscles to tense up. Over time, this can lead to tension-type headaches and migraine headaches which are associated with chronic muscle tension. Many suffer from lower back pain from stress as well.
Stress and strong emotions can cause shortness of breath, which can sometimes lead to panic attacks. Elevated blood pressure is also an impact of acute stress, known to some as “fight or flight.” Generally, this will level out once the stressor is gone.
Stress can also impact gut health, affecting brain-gut communication. It can cause bloating, pain, and general discomfort. This change in the gut bacteria also impacts mood significantly, since the brain and gut are BFFs. Stress can cause hormones to fluctuate, lowering sex drive, and causing infertility.
The way that people respond to these different feelings of stress varies, and each person has a unique way of coping with their own stress levels. Not all coping mechanisms are unhealthy. Some find working out, journaling or meditation to be helpful. On the contrary, some individuals turn to habits that can be detrimental to their physical well-being. This is where we see habits forming such as alcohol and drug use, spending lots of money, or excessive eating.
Why do we stress eat?
When we’re stressed out, our body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is an essential hormone that affects almost every organ and tissue in your body. It plays many important roles, including:
- Regulating your body’s stress response.
- Helping control your body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, or your metabolism.
- Suppressing inflammation.
- Regulating blood pressure.
- Regulating blood sugar.
- Helping control your sleep-wake cycle.
Your body continuously monitors your cortisol levels to maintain steady levels (homeostasis). Unregulated cortisol levels can be harmful to your health. Even if your stress trigger goes away, your body may still feel like the switch is “on” and continue to have the reaction to respond by eating. Stress has also been shown to increase our appetites for not-so-healthy foods. Foods high in fat or sugar tend to be preferred when your cortisol levels are up. Those “comfort” foods can combat stress for the time being, but in the long run, you can feel some harmful side effects of stress eating.
Ways to Combat Stress Eating
Sometimes stress eating feels unavoidable, or like a mindless experience that you can’t control. We promise that there are tons of ways to become more mindful of this habit. If you ever feel like your stress eating is out of control, we recommend reaching out to a licensed professional to seek help. Dieticians and therapists are there to help and aid you in finding healthy coping mechanisms for when you are dealing with stress.
Try tracking your food.
This helps to keep you accountable for what you’re eating and why. Take note of why you ate a particular food during a high-stress time. Were you hungry, or were you stressed? Doing this may allow you to see patterns in why you’re eating and what’s going on in your life. Having intention behind every bite will make you enjoy food more and not just because you’re stressed.
Tame your stress.
There are several ways you can regulate your cortisol and stress levels.
- Maintain healthy relationships. Get a good support system in place through family and friends who you can lean on when you are feeling tempted
- Get quality sleep: Chronic sleep issues, such as insomnia or working night shifts, are associated with higher cortisol levels.
- Exercise regularly: Many studies show that regular exercise helps improve sleep quality and reduce stress.
- Learn to limit stressful thinking patterns: Being aware of your thoughts, breathing rate, heart rate and signs of tension helps you recognize stress when it begins and can help you prevent it.
- Practice deep breathing: Controlled breathing helps stimulate your parasympathetic system, which helps lower cortisol levels.
- Laugh! Laughing promotes the release of endorphins and suppresses cortisol. Participating in hobbies and fun activities can also promote feelings of well-being, which may lower your overall stress.
Lose the temptation.
Don’t keep those high-fat, sugary comfort foods in your house. If you’re feeling stressed, try to center yourself before you go and purchase your go-to comfort food. Keep healthy snacks in the house so if you do get the urge, you’re eating something better for you than you normally would.
If you really need it, or you already have it in your house, just make sure you’re allocating yourself one serving size at a time! There’s a big difference between a serving size of ice cream, and an entire pint of ice cream.
Understand that this too shall pass.
If you have an episode of stressful eating, forgive yourself and move on. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Focus on the positive changes you’re making and know that you’re working towards a healthier version of yourself.
Be cognizant of disordered eating.
There is a fine line between stress eating and developing a disordered eating habit. Here are the signs to look for whether it’s for yourself or a loved one. If you want immediate assistance you can always call or text the national eating disorder help line 800-931-2237.
- Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, carbohydrates, fat grams, and dieting
- Appears uncomfortable eating around others
- Dramatic weight gain or loss
- Rapid or persistent decline or increase in food intake
- Excessive or compulsive exercise patterns
- Purging, restricting, binge eating, or compulsive eating
- Abuse of diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, or emetics
- Eating in secret, hiding food, disrupting meals, feeling out of control with food