Is stress eating you? Or are you eating it?


What would happen if you were in a room full of some of your favorite foods and were also under a lot of stress? With the holiday season, both the food and the stress are all too prevalent. A lot of people wonder if “stress eating” ever goes away. The answer is up to you.

First, a statement that’s going to mess with your mind—there is no such thing as “stress.” What we call stress is really our reaction to some external stimulus. Nothing is inherently stressful; instead, our thoughts give these external events the power to throw us into what we recognize as a stressful state. Your reaction to the stimulus lies in your understanding that you have choices in how you perceive and respond to the situation.

Here’s an example you might recognize. You’ve been invited to your company pot-luck and everyone is encouraged to bring their favorite treats so “we can eat all day long!” You immediately break into a cold sweat, panic and think “man, how can I take that day off?” You’ve stressed yourself out. However, you haven’t considered all of your options nor have you thought about the ramifications of your reaction. I’ve written in the past about how excluding yourself from social events because of the presence of food is counterproductive. It only sets you apart from others, socially isolating you, and prevents you from participating in an enjoyable event. Instead of panicking, look at your options. First, you have complete control over what you’re going to bring to the pot-luck. How about something healthy that you could nibble on all day like a veggie platter? You might be thanked for being the only person that thought to bring something good for you. Your second choice is what you actually put in your mouth. You brought something you know you can eat without guilt, so start there. Next, fill up on light foods, drink a lot of water, use really small plates, circle the table a few times before you take anything and pick one indulgence that you’ll save for the end. When you eat that, you’re done. You’ve likely built up your own techniques for dealing with “all you care to eat” scenarios so pull those tricks out of your bag. See, instead of being stressed, there are plenty of other options as to how you view this event.

Your behaviors in stressful situations are learned responses triggered by thoughts. The cool thing is we have complete control over what shoots through our brain. Your first line of defense against stress eating is knocking out the root cause. However, there are times when your thoughts will get away from you. Your backup plan is to use something called “countering.” If you find yourself in a situation where you’re stressed out and your reflex reaction is to reach for food, counter that action with a gating mechanism; preferably something that’s good for you. For me, I used push-ups. Every time I went for a snack, I dropped and did 50 pushups. Now if I’m a little stressed, it’s physical activity I crave and not food. What might work best for you? What would sidetrack you from reaching for that donut or beer? (Or both?)

You choose whether or not you’re stressed out. If you’re already there, your next choice is whether or not you reach for food. There is no direct link between that external stimulus and food going into your mouth. Remember that you’re in control!

Photo credit: practicalowl / Foter / CC BY-NC

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