Stress eating – What is it? And how do you handle it?

Have you ever found yourself in a stressful situation, thoughts racing a mile a minute, heart pounding in your chest and you just can’t seem to focus on that particular thing you need to? Have you on more than one of these occasions found yourself staring emptily into the refrigerator, thoughtlessly throwing together a sandwich, or scavenging the pantry for some chocolate, crisps or something of that sort? Or maybe not being able to resist that urge of throwing some candy into the cart when just about to leave the store?

If you’re a person prone to stress eating – I’m sure you’ve been in this situation multiple times, and as good as it might feel in the moment, the cravings you’re having could really be the complete opposite of what you want to do.

If this is the case, you definitely need to start thinking about what’s going on, taking a minute to hold up, and question whether you actually need to finish that candy bar, or if there’s something else on your mind that’s causing you to crave it. Stress eating is a hard thing to cope with, as it is very reliant on your behavioural patterns, but that doesn’t make it impossible to change. And hey, if it could lead to some long term health benefits, a thicker wallet and some looser pants – then maybe it’s time for a change?

Stress eating can rapidly become unhealthy, if not dealt with.

What is stress eating?

Stress eating is when you feel the need to eat something because of the fact that you are feeling stressed out at the moment. Eating while being stressed is thus not necessarily stress eating, it’s only if the stress is the actual cause of your craving that we’re referring to stress eating. This is an important distinction, as you don’t want your body being controlled by anything else than the natural hunger hormones you have.

If you start feeling nervous and thus start eating to stave off that nervosity, you could put yourself in a situation where you misinterpret the body’s signals, try to override them and not actually address the real problem. It could also lead to an unhealthy long term life style.

Eating is of course not necessarily bad, in fact it is very vital for our survival. Yet life is all about balance, and overeating over a prolonged period of time will eventually cause weight gain, and the detrimental health effects related to it, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and strained breathing.

The risk of over-eating becomes far more severe when you’re responding to the “wrong” signals from your body, that is; becoming hungry or in the mood for something sweet just because you’re nervous or stressed about another situation. It could also actually remove the focus from the thing that is really stressing you out, and thereby removing your ability to deal with the real source of the problem.

…and why do we turn to stress eating?

So why do we do this? What good could possibly come out of a bar of chocolate when you’re stressed out? It doesn’t really resolve the situation. It is however, not a crazy response from your body, so don’t feel bad about it. It’s quite natural actually. Food is comforting, it has a very soothing effect on us, even since we all were small children this natural need of the body puts us in a state of satisfaction, through good taste and nutrition.

Usually, the body also slows down after intake of a meal, as the digestion kicks in, and moves the body’s blood supply from muscles to the stomach. This is a clear activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which carries the main function of relaxing the body, preparing it for rest. This feeling is what you’re trying to induce when you’re eating something and you’re stressed. You want that relaxation. For more information about the function of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in relation to stress – check this article out about what stress actually is.

Stress eating can also be the result of a rather common coping mechanism – avoidance behavior. Read more about different coping mechanisms here.

Besides this, you also derive a sense of comfort from having a habit. This might sound a bit strange, but it is a very common thing in the human condition, taking physical action in a way – sometimes completely unrelated to the actual problem – in order to reduce the tension, anxiety and nervousness of a situation. Having a candy bar, could in this case not affect the actual situation causing stress, but it would give me the sense of feeling that I’m atleast doing something. I’m taking control over my life through the things I can manage, my physical state, and in this case – through adding sugar to my body.

The irony is quite clear, by trying to maintain this control, you can sometimes actually lose control, and when you find yourself manically stress eating, or uncontrollably craving certain foods, you’re in big trouble. But don’t start worrying just yet – as it is all about behavioural patterns, habits and tension, you can start changing all these things in order to establish another way of dealing with your stress. One that won’t similarly deal with your waist line.

The potential risks of stress eating:

  • Weight gain
  • Digestive problems
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Potential cardiovascular disease, related to weight increments
  • Not dealing with the actual stressor
  • Frustrating food cravings
  • Blood sugar spikes
  • Dependency on feeding whenever stressed

How do you break the habits of stress eating?

So now that we know what the problem is, and what effects it may have – how do we resolve it? Naturally, the best thing to do would be to deal with the actual stressor, that is, the problem that is causing you to become stressed in the first place. But this is not always easily done, and here we are instead going to focus on what you can do to cope with your actual stress eating.

First thing’s first, you need to identify when you are stress eating, and learn how to distinguish it from your normal eating habits. This is done primarily through two ways:

  1. The first is that you identify in what situations you usually find yourself stress eating. Always hanging around the fridge at work? Always going straight for the pantry once you feel taxed out? Think about it, identify your own patterns, and when you see them – try to put yourself outside of these situations. Think actively of how you could break these situations and how to make sure you don’t end up in them.
  2. The second thing you need to do, is to question your own behaviour when thinking of having a snack. Do you really want to have it? Is it because you’re feeling a bit peckish? Why do you want to have that snack right now? If you can’t think of any better reason than that you’re stressed at the moment, you should really think twice about it. It is important to take these things seriously, as you might otherwise get stuck in a negative rut of which you can’t break. Better deal with the problem now, than let it become a growing (figuratively and literally!) problem for the future.
Reduce the stress, as well as any excess weight through dealing with your stress eating.

Another thing you can do, which is quite helpful, is to start actively planning your meals. If you create a fundamental structure before starting each day, you know when to eat, and can prepare meals accordingly. This way, you eliminate the spontaneous, and stress related eating. If a stressor comes up out of nowhere, and you get a sudden craving for something sweet or rigid, just remind yourself of your meal plan, and try to refrain from the temptation of snacking.

You could even take this one step further, and actively start planning your purchases, when in the store, in order to make sure that you don’t have certain type of foods at home, that you would normally turn to when stress eating. This requires some thought and a willingness to break old habits, but if stress eating is a serious problem for you, then you might want to consider it. The main idea behind this is to reduce the impulsiveness of the eating, in order to give you back some of that control you feel you have lost.

The last thing you can do, is actually quite an important thing. It concerns why you are stress eating in the first place. The thing behind this is, that you feel stressed, out of control and insecure about something. You then fill this void with food to comfort yourself, and retrieve that feeling of being relaxed.

So what you need to do, is to start from scratch, actively empowering yourself, in order to make sure that you always feel in control of what’s happening. You can’t control everything, of course, but you should feel like you have enough resources to deal with any type of stress related problem that might occur. That even if you’re affected by it right now, you could take time out, figure out the problem, and solve it.

In order to do this, and in large become more comfortable in your own skin, we would recommend having a look at some general coping mechanisms on this page to learn the basics of stress management. It might seem like alot of work, but it’s a healthy undertaking, and knowing how to handle stress could really work wonders for your ability to feel confident in yourself, empowered and in a good place. Eventually, that donut won’t feel so enticing, after all.

Some general tips on how to handle stress eating:

  • Identify in what situations you’re stress eating
  • Distinguish WHEN you’re stress eating
  • Take the problem seriously, don’t just let it rest
  • Actively plan your meals to avoid spontaneous stress eating
  • Actively plan your grocery purchases to avoid impulsive purchases
  • Empower yourself, become more confident in your stress management

Are you a stress eater yourself? How do you usually manage your stress eating?