Emotional Eating: Dealing with Stress

This probably the most common excuse for overeating, eating the wrong foods or just plain bingeing. We either use food to distract us or comfort us. We want something yummy to make us feel good. It’s completely understandable: we’re anxious, uptight and we want those negative emotions to go away. Food is something that does that for us. Things like ice cream or chocolate or potato chips set off our pleasure center in the brain. It’s why we think of them as addictive. It doesn’t have to be sugary or salty: as long as they relieve our negative emotions, we will keep coming back to them when we feel the stress.

It’s easy to make healthy choices when we’re feeling good but once things start getting complicated, we feel it’s okay to ‘have a treat’ or ‘take a break,’ but actually it’s the worst thing we can do. Giving ourselves permission to make unhealthy choices, whether it’s cookies or skipping a workout, is simply reinforcing our old stress relieving routines which kept us from our fitness goals to begin with. There will always be stress in our lives: it’s an unhappy fact of life. Learning to change our habits in times of stress is another tough stressor but it’s a necessary one. Once we learn how not to stress-eat or make excuses, we make a quantum leap forward. Let’s be honest here: we’re under stress, we eat a stack of cookies, we feel better for the five-ten minutes it took to eat them, then we feel guilty about the cookies on top of the stress that started it all, then we worry over whether we’ve either stalled or gained weight. More stress and bad news!

There’s also the whole physical effects that come with our bad choices besides the stall/ gain. We usually don’t realize it until we get away from the poor choices, but things like chips, cookies, and other processed foods are ‘quick’ carbs. We use terms and phrases like ‘chocoholic’ or ‘sugar addiction’ and we’re not wrong: our bodies learn to crave the processed foods because they’re quick energy. One of the reasons they’re not good for us is because they spike our blood sugar, which is followed by a rapid drop, which results in the cravings for sugar or other quick carbs. These processed foods are full of calories but low in nutrition and they perpetuate our cravings. What about any of that is good for us? The less we eat of these foods, the less we crave them and once we lose our taste for them we realize a few things: we feel better physically and mentally when we don’t eat them. Unfortunately it’s not until we eat them again that we realize how just plain awful they make us feel compared to eating something healthier. They don’t taste as good as they used to, they’re not good for us and they make us feel ‘ugh.’ So, why are we eating them?? Because we were feeling stressed and that’s what we do when we’re stressed!

It’s a little bit of a catch-22: we’re freaking out over the negative emotions, so we go to what calms us down, but then we freak out because now we just ‘blew our diet’- no win situation.  But sometimes learning a new healthy habit doesn’t help either: we’re freaking out and we try the ‘healthy thing’ but it doesn’t really seem to help since it’s not the old comforting routine.  We’re still feeling the urge to do the ‘old habit,’ and we’re left stressing out with the negative emotions.  This transition period is usually where we give up and revert to the emotional eating we wanted to avoid.

It’s easy to sit here and say “stress isn’t an excuse! Don’t eat your emotions!”  In reality, when we are stressed, we aren’t thinking clearly because we’re under emotional duress (the fancy way of saying we’re freaking out!)  The law in fact recognizes this and makes exceptions to agreements made under emotional duress.  However, we have to be stronger than the negative emotions and learn new ways to cope with stress.  It’s not easy and it’s fun but until we learn how to deal with our bad habits and our negative emotions, we’re going to keep doing it. This is what makes that transition period so extremely difficult. Not only are we dealing with whatever triggered the stress response, but we’re trying to deal with learning new behaviors at the same time.  So in the middle of all of this emotional turmoil, we’re supposed to be clear-headed enough to tell ourselves to be patient and learn the new healthy habits because, in the long run, we’ll be better off.

Being a responsible adult really stinks at times and this is definitely one of those times! I vividly remember trying to be “responsible and healthy” about dealing with my stress and I still found myself staring into the fridge after the argument with my mom! I wasn’t hungry at all, but it was pretty easy to figure out what the trigger was! Luckily, I realized what I was doing and shut the door, but then, I was still left with the stress….

The first thing you need to realize is that screwing up isn’t the end of the world.  This is a learning situation, so there’s going to be mistakes and it’s going to be a little trial and error before you find out how to get over it.  The second thing you need to realize is that eating was your distraction from the negative emotions, so you are going to need to find a new distraction or learn to deal with the negative stress and emotions.  Obviously, learning to deal with the emotions is the best way to handle it, but until you do, you need to find a distraction that calms you down and doesn’t involve food!  Most people opt for exercise: it stimulates ‘feel good’ hormones and it burns calories.  Sometimes, however, when your body is occupied, your mind starts going to whatever you are trying to forget.  We all know how it is when we go to bed and then your day starts running through your head! I find this happens a lot to me when I start working out: body busy, brain not busy- so it goes right to whatever was bothering me! Sometimes it helps to focus on your form or counting your repetitions.

Even if you do opt for exercise as a distraction, it’s better to have more than one way of handling the stress.  We aren’t always going to be some place where we can start lifting or doing lunges or whatever we do when we exercise.  You need to have some other options available to you.  For some people, meditation works well because it teaches you focus on clearing your mind so you can relax instead of stress out. For other people, games, puzzles or reading work a little better since they distract the mind but require a little less practice at “thinking about nothing.”  It all depends on you. No doubt we all remember getting to the bottom of the page or the end of the chapter and have no recollection of what we just read: while our eyes were busy scanning the page, our brain was somewhere else!  This is actually the number one reason I had such a hard time (and still do) learning through audio. It’s much easier for me to dismiss what I’m hearing as background noise and focus on something else than it is for me to dismiss what I’m seeing or doing and focus on something in my head.  That was a good thing when I had to study in a noisy cafeteria as a kid but when I’m trying to listen to a book or a lecture, not so much!

This is where you need to spend a little time learning what works for you as a stress reliever.  Again, reading might not work so well but a puzzle or a game that forces you to focus might work a little better.  We all know there is no shortage of computer games and puzzles!  While playing a game to relax might seem like a waste of time, it’s really stress-management.  That’s why these games are so popular.  [Seriously, how many versions of ‘find the hidden object’ and ‘candy crush’ clones do we need?]  As a culture, we are super stressed! This is another reason why we eat so much.  It’s an easy thoughtless distraction.  Don’t think about the nasty letter we got from XYZ; think about the donut we’re going to get at the Krispy Kreme drive-thru on the way home! Don’t think about how we’re going to pay to fix the leaky shower: think about what we’re going to have for dinner instead! Games and puzzles are seen as a waste of time, like yoga and meditation.  It’s not for ‘serious minded business people.’  Somehow relaxation and stress-management have been overlooked by a lot of the health and nutrition industry, aright along with sleep, and are only now beginning to get the attention they deserve.  If we are so stressed out that we can’t sleep, that we are eating junk food to stay awake and distract ourselves from the unending stress, that our blood pressure is so high we’re in danger of a stroke, what difference does it make if we’re successful at our jobs?  One of my mom’s supervisors was someone who was a workaholic.  She was always working an extra shift and holidays because she wanted to have enough money put away for retirement with her husband.  It’s an admirable sentiment and one that most of us would agree with.  Unfortunately, a few months after she retired, she had a major stroke that left her paralyzed for the remaining few months of her life and her husband spent her retirement money taking trips with another woman.

We’ve all heard stories like that: “Mr. Jones worked hard all his life, and a few months after he retired, he died!!” Unfortunately, what we take away from those stories is “don’t retire! you’ll die!!”  The point is that the cumulative effect of chronic stress, chronic sleep deprivation and poor diet is what kills us. Learning to manage our stress has other benefits than just not overeating.  Once we learn to manage our negative emotions in healthy ways we not only lose weight, we allow ourselves to relax and heal mentally and physically.  We need to take the time to enjoy the life we have right now rather than kill ourselves working for the life we want to have when and if we live long enough to retire.

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