In the wake of a global pandemic, there is a new understanding of the role stress and anxiety can play in our everyday habits. One topic I have heard more about than ever before is stress eating. Clients tell me about it as if they are reporting the weather, “I have gained five pounds in the last few months…. I have been doing a lot of stress eating”. I am grateful for how comfortable my clients feel talking to me about this.
However, I also see it as a sign that stress and stress eating have become almost accepted as our new normal!
Our bodies and our health are not designed to withstand prolonged stress. I am a firm believer in not just managing our stress, but also reducing it.
Overeating, as a result of stress eating or emotional eating, takes its toll. Most often weight gain is the main complaint, but depending on where those calories come from, overeating may also increase our risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and chronic disease.
So how do we tackle stress eating and emotional eating in a healthy way? Let us start by understanding mechanisms that are making us reach for food in the first place—executive functioning and conditioning.
Executive functions are a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. When our executive functions are working well, they allow us to make good, well-thought-out decisions. They are at their best when we are well-rested, well-oxygenated, and are relaxed. When we are tired, oxygen-deprived or under stress, our executive functions don’t work as well. We aren’t as quick or as clear in our decisions.
When someone tells me that they “don’t have any willpower around food” I always think about executive functioning.
Consider this. What time of day do you struggle the most with emotional eating or stress eating? In my practice, I don’t think I have ever had a client tell me “first thing in the morning.” They typically tell me “later in the day” or “evening.” This makes sense. This is when we are most tired, following the stressors of our day.
Conditioning is a learned behaviour in response to a “condition”. These learned responses often come from our childhood or past experiences, leading us to associate a certain condition with a specific response. In essence, when we are in a particular environment, or experience a certain sound, taste, emotion, etc., we may respond in a specific—learned—way.
For example, in childhood, perhaps someone gave us a food “treat” when we were upset to help make us feel better and stop crying. The action seems innocent enough, but when the situation is repeated over and over again, we can become conditioned. We may start to associate having “treats” with making us feel better. Then later, as adults, we reach for food for comfort.
Often we are not conscious this is happening, unless we pay close attention to our thoughts, emotions and actions. This is the beginning of what we call “mindful eating”.
As you set out to overcome stress eating, I would like to give you some important advice:
1. Let go of shame and guilt – There are some strong internal powers at play. There may be times when you still give into stress eating along the way. Be gentle with yourself.
2. Have patience – Changing our behaviours means retraining our brain to be conditioned in a new way around food. It will take time.
3. It is okay to intentionally choose to have a “treat” – The idea is not to avoid all the foods you enjoy; it is about being aware of why you are eating. Don't just eat mindlessly.
In my practice, I often spend several sessions working on mindful eating. However, if you are ready to get started, here are 4 steps to get going:
1. Focus on regular, well balanced meals – If you are hungry because you are skipping meals or eating more processed foods, you might have a tougher time tuning into the difference between physiological hunger and emotional eating. Start by nourishing your body well.
2. Keep a journal – It can be helpful to track your hunger, emotions, and thoughts as they come up along the way. You can use any kind of journal you like, but if you are looking for one that focuses on eating, check out my Daily Health & Self-Care Journal.
3. Pause before you eat – As best as you can, try to slow down before you put any food in your mouth. Take a few seconds to reflect on the emotion you are feeling at that moment (e.g. tired, stressed, excited, bored, and so on). No judgement about the emotion, just write it down in your journal, along with some details about what was happening in your day at that time.
4. Look for patterns – After a week or so, review your journal to see if there are any common themes in the emotions you wrote down. This might help you uncover the triggering emotions or situations.
Once you have created an awareness around your eating behaviours, you can then start to use some mindful eating techniques to start shifting to healthier habits.
As well, it is important to look for healthier ways of handling our stress and emotions.
Remember, stress eating and weight gain are often the symptoms of something deeper. It is equally important to address the underlying emotional concern as well.
As a trauma-informed practitioner, I understand how emotional eating and body confidence may be intertwined with past trauma. Whether you have struggled with c-PTSD or have simply had upsetting experiences with past weight loss programs, my priority is to provide a safe, judgement free space to work on your health. I offer one on one and group programs, to best meet individual needs.
Food for thought.