My friend, Ginny, was crossing the street when a car swerved around the corner and almost hit her.
As soon as she jumped out the way she exclaimed, “I need a Snickers bar!” We laughed, but it was at that moment that she realized how much she turns to food in answer to her stress.
You may not have cars almost running you down, but you do have disturbing emails, long hours at the computer, demanding children, worries about the future, co-workers and bosses who upset you, financial concerns, and other stressors on a regular basis.
Stress eating is common. However, there are many better ways to handle stress besides food.
The most appropriate reason to eat is in response to physical hunger, obviously, because the body is literally asking to be fed.
Unfortunately, most people don’t even pay attention to their bodies or bellies to determine when to eat. They eat because of the time on the clock, the availability of food, as an antidote to boredom, or—most dangerously—in reaction to stress.
Related: 10 Ways You Can Reduce Stress
After all, one study reported that the average person experiences stress about 50 times a day.
And eating in reaction to stress is so common it has become an unconscious habit. We do it without even thinking. I even had someone tell me she can’t work at her computer unless she is eating to help her calm down!
Eating has become an easy, fast answer to what ails us. Eating when stressed can calm, numb, distract, and satisfy—at least for a minute or two. It seems like a good solution to stress at first and it’s “oh so easy” to reach for food.
The problem is that after you finish eating you now have more stress than you started with–the stress of extra pounds.
Don’t let that happen to you. Here are ten strategies for helping you reverse the habit of eating when you’re stressed.
How To Stop Eating When You’re Stressed
1. Recognize the signs of stress
The first physical signs of stress include muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, clenched jaw, shakiness, upset stomach, cold or sweaty hands and feet, dry mouth, and difficulty swallowing.
Related: QUIZ: How Stressed Are You?
These symptoms occur when you experience a real or imagined threat. This hard-wired response when we feel threatened is called the fight-or-flight response. We needed this response to survive as a species in ancient times, but in today’s world, fighting or fleeing in response to our stress isn’t exactly socially acceptable.
So we stress eat—not a helpful alternative response. Be aware of when you feel these signs of stress and proceed to the next technique before you reach for food.
2. Use the STOP sign technique.
STOP is an acronym for the steps you can take to reverse the fight-or-flight response–Stop, Take a Breath, Observe, and Proceed.
When you first feel stressed, stop and do nothing.
Take a breath, or take five breaths, or breathe deeply for the rest of the day. In other words, take as many breaths as you need to help your body come back to balance and feel more balanced.
Observe your thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts and feelings often get a little catastrophic when we’re upset and this takes a minute or two of observation to realize. Ask yourself what it is you really need. Are you physically hungry for food or are you needing something else?
Once you’ve done these first three steps, then you’re ready to proceed with greater awareness and clarity. You will be less likely to eat.
3. Know the difference between physical and emotional hunger
Physical and emotional hunger can feel quite similar. Physical hunger is felt as gnawing, pain, and aching sensations in your stomach. Your hands and feet may feel cold. You might feel lightheaded, weak and irritable.
As you might have noticed, these are very similar to the signs of stress.
In order to distinguish between physical and emotional hunger, you’ll need to do a little investigation. How long has it been since you last ate? We normally need food at least every 4 hours. Is there something that is stressing you right now?
If so, that urge to reach for food might be misguided. Now is a good time to reach for relief elsewhere. The next few strategies could be just what you need.
4. Walk around the block
Go take your body for a walk! There is hardly any better stress reliever than talking a stroll around the block.
Related: 5 Running Tips For Beginners
When you walk (or run), you are responding in a way that brings the body internally back to balance after being stressed. The fight-or-flight response activates the sympathetic nervous system. Walking activates the parasympathetic nervous system and your body comes back to homeostasis.
This is associated with a greater ability to solve problems and think creatively—something you really need when you’re stressed.
5. Strike a pose (a yoga pose, that is)
Research indicates that doing yoga can reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, in your body even more than using relaxation techniques.
Related: 9 Reasons To Start Doing Yoga
You don’t even have to do it for a long time. Doing one or two of your favorite poses can quiet the nervous system and get you back on track. If you aren’t familiar to yoga, try this yoga video.
6. Go fill up your water bottle
This might seem like a strange idea, but the intent is to get you moving (to the water cooler) and away from the stressful person or situation.
Related: 5 Big Benefits Of Drinking Water
You will be hydrating your body (another healthy activity) and reducing the desire for food by filling your belly with water.
Taken together–walking and drinking—can give you enough time to keep from stress eating.
7. Get your body on the floor at least once a day
I leave a yoga mat in my office exactly for this purpose.
When you lie down and let your body completely relax for five minutes, you feel more comfortable, and you get rid of a lot of muscle strain that results from stress.
Related: 6 Great Exercises To Gain Muscle
Feeling more relaxed, you are much less likely to reach for food.
8. Call a friend
Sometimes, it just feels good to talk it out with someone. Pick someone that you know will really listen to you without interrupting or giving advice.
If you need to, actually tell someone “I would just like you to listen.” The gift of being heard can turn a stressful situation around and keep you from reaching for food.
Related: Benefits Of Friendship
9. Write your feelings in a journal
Don’t want to talk about what’s stressing you out? Pick up a pen and paper and put your thoughts and feelings down in writing.
Research indicates that the simple act of writing about stress—whether it’s about problems at work, relationship trouble, or road rage—has a positive effect on your health.
Write instead of eat. You might even discover an inner creativity that you never knew you had.
10. Engage in positive self-talk
One of the reasons that stress gets out of hand and we reach for food is that we make situations worse by how we obsess about them.
I’m talking about those thoughts in your head that tell you it is all wrong, it’s always going to be wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We all have an inner critic and worry monster.
Related: The Incredible Power Of Self Talk
Turn that harmful talk around by asking yourself “What’s another way of looking at this?”
There is always a more positive way of looking at any situation. If you haven’t tried this strategy, I highly recommend it. You could even begin to see the humor in the things that used to have you running for the fridge.
It can be tempting to let yourself wander to the snack cabinet when you’re feeling stressed. Even if stress eating is a major problem for you, by using these simple techniques, you can reduce your stress without the cookie—and without affecting your waistline.
Dr. Lynn Rossy is the Health Psychologist for Healthy for Life and Director of the Mindfulness Practice Center at the University of Missouri. She develops, delivers, and researches programs that target stress reduction, physical inactivity, obesity, and wellness in the workplace. Her empirically-validated 10 week program called “Eat for Life” helps people have a healthier relationship with their food and their bodies. Rossy blogs weekly about her mindful eating and living philosophy at TastingMindfulness.com.
Photo by somethingclassiccatering