Managing and Overcoming Emotional Eating
Hopefully, for most people, food is a source of enjoyment and happy memories made in the kitchen. However, for others, it can become a tricky or even treacherous domain.
If you’re one of the many people who struggle with overeating, you’re not alone. Keep reading to learn how to stop stress eating with actionable tips you can implement in your life today.
The Relationship Between Stress and Overeating
First, it’s important to understand the nature of the relationship between your stress levels and your tendency to overeat.
Stress, when experienced in the short term, releases epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). This activates your body’s fight-or-flight response, shutting down other non-essential functions like appetite. When your body thinks it’s in imminent danger, snacking doesn’t really take priority.
It’s when stress is constant that it becomes a problem. To learn how to stop stress eating, understand what happens with persistent stress.
Instead of releasing epinephrine, your body releases cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Cortisol boosts your appetite, as well as your motivation levels, including the motivation to eat. It also activates cravings for foods high in fats, sugars, or both (“comfort foods”).
In today’s world of work, family, politics, etc., it’s no wonder stress is so high and so constant. Overcoming emotional eating begins with understanding these concepts and learning how to manage your stress levels.
Tips to Manage Stress
The only way to stop stress eating is to learn how to manage anxiety. Here are a few strategies to get you started:
- Figure out exactly what’s causing you so much stress. You gotta dig deep here; “work” doesn’t count. What, exactly, is giving you anxiety at work? Too long of a to-do list? Not enough support? No work-life balance?
- Once you can identify your sources of stress, see if you can take actions to reduce it. Can you talk to your boss about delegating a few of your tasks or explain to them you need back-up in meetings?
- If your stress and overeating are emotions-based, look at those situations to stop stress eating. Do you feel unheard by your partner? Is there a trauma you haven’t worked through? Is your relationship with your parents strained?
- Perhaps it’s not an outside force. You may have simply never learned healthy emotional coping mechanisms growing up. If this is the case, it’s important to get in touch with a qualified professional. It’s very difficult to build this skill on your own.
If there’s literally nothing you can do about a situation (or even if there is, the strategies below are effective either way), you’ll have to employ other techniques to stop stress eating:
- Prioritize self-care. This is non-negotiable. Pick an activity you love and carve out time for it at least once a week in your schedule. Take a bath, go for a walk, bake, dance in your living room… whatever it is, do it.
- Journal. It doesn’t have to be every day, once a week is fine. The act of putting pen to paper to vent about your feelings—especially knowing it’s for your eyes only—is very cathartic.
- Work through the root cause of your emotions. Again, if necessary, contact a licensed professional to help. Trauma and coping skills are big, big subjects. Having someone in your corner to help you navigate your journey to overcome emotional eating is key.
Interim Tips to Stop Stress Eating
Okay, you’re figuring out your particular triggers and, even better, the emotions underlying them. Now it’s time for a few tips to employ until you gain the coping mechanisms necessary to break your stress-and-overeating connection.
- If you have a particular food you gravitate toward when you stress eat, remove it from your home or substitute for healthier options.
- When you feel the impulse to stress eat, go to another room in the house instead of the kitchen. Close your eyes and really sit with your feelings. Try to name them as specifically as possible and analyze why you’re feeling this way instead of muting it with food.
- If they’re supportive, ask for help from your partner, roommate, or other member of the household. Explain that you’re trying to stop stress eating and you’d appreciate it if they could be a listening ear when you feel overwhelmed with emotion. (Be careful not to turn them into your therapist, however. This is for emergencies only.)
- Start an exercise routine, if you don’t already have one. Exercise reduces stress by lowering cortisol and boosting endorphins. Aim for at least three days per week, and bonus points for starting yoga or another meditative practice.
- If you struggle with the motivation to make a healthy dinner and find yourself gravitating to the drive-thru, stock your freezer with low-sodium, protein-packed meals that you can toss in the microwave.
- One last tool: if you’re struggling to name your emotions, save a photo of this emotion color wheel. It begins with the “basic” emotions in the center and extends outward into the deeper ones. It can help you stop stress eating if your habits are emotionally driven.
Overcoming Emotional Eating Is Possible
With the right tools and support, you can absolutely break your stress-and-overeating cycle. The most important thing to remember is, you’re not alone in this. It’s a very common thing to struggle with, which means there are a wide variety of resources available to help.