Stress Eating: The Why and How to Stop

Photo by Stephanie Studer on Unsplash

When life’s problems start adding up and it seems like you haven’t been cut a break for a while, it’s easy to start seeing the symptoms of chronic stress. When stressful events happen too often or for too long, cortisol, a stress hormone, can persist in the body. If you find yourself turning to a bag of Sun Chips or leftover ice cream after a long day, when it’s not a habit you usually catch yourself doing, it may be due to effects of stress.

If you notice this happening, the first line of defense you can take is to reduce the stress you feel in the moment. A 5-minute meditation, brief session of relaxing yoga or a short walk can alleviate feelings of stress you may feel and make you more able to control those impulses when you’re back in the kitchen. Studies also suggest that having a robust social support system can act as a buffer to chronic stress. Call up a friend or schedule a meeting with someone you trust to keep your stress levels at bay.

  • If you notice that snacking is becoming a habit, rather than force yourself to stop, rotate in guilt-free alternatives when you feel the impulse. Sliced cucumber may work to reduce the tension you feel due to a craving and will end up way less harmful than potato chips in the long run.
  • Making careful decisions at the grocery store can also affect your eating habits. For example, deciding not to purchase, or purchase less of a “treat” item can be a short-term solution to reducing the probability of you snacking on it at home.
  • Even though you may be busy and tempted to skip meals to complete tasks, try to remember to stay hydrated and eat regular healthy meals or at least have healthy snacks throughout the day. Planning meals ahead can keep you on track.
  • If you are in the moment, practice mindfulness- pause to ask yourself if you are really hungry. Take a deep breath, have a glass of water and if you still want to eat, go ahead but make an intentional decision. Take a portion size, be present, sit and enjoy. Avoid mindless eating in front of a computer, playing on your phone or watching TV.

This year has been rough, and life finds ways to introduce stress into all of our lives at some point. Left unchecked, stress can become a chronic strain on our lives, and lead to a cycle of maladaptive habits. Stress eating, especially when it’s junk food, can lead to a whole host of other related issues that snowball. Noticing when your stress levels are contributing to behavior changes and implementing solutions to roll back the shadow of stress can be a crucial step to protecting your well-being.

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Marissa Abram, PhD

Educator, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Addiction Researcher and Founder of Strategic Wellness Management.