Eating does much more for our mind and body than simply provide vitamins and nutrients. Eating is a way by which we celebrate the good times, soothe ourselves during the bad times and more generally have learned to express our feelings.
As a child, many of us have extremely fond memories of food during holidays or of being given a lollipop after a visit to a doctor, and have learned to associate food with positive feelings and comfort. For many people this association between food and comfort has led to unhealthy eating cycles in our adult life. As stress levels rise, we immediately turn to food to soothe ourselves.
Eating often gives us a quick release from stress, whether it is related to work, relationships or something more serious.
Falling into unhealthy eating during periods of stress doesn’t have to be the norm, but as with all life changes it does require a bit of practice to make the switch. After all, it took quite a bit of practice for many of us to develop such strong associations between ice-cream and stress-relief! Before we dive into how to cope with stress without food, let’s first come to understand what stress does to our body and why food offers a quick fix.
What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s natural response to a threat within the environment. In the distant past, this was likely an approaching predator or a rival tribe. In more recent times, humans continue to have a fight or flight response to stress, but now we react to non-life threatening stressors like in relationships, dealings with a coworker, or lack of sleep.
The body will still be triggered to react in the same way; by increasing the heart rate, anxiety, muscle tension and shallow breathing it activates the sympathetic nervous system. In times of chronic stress, these symptoms can continue without fluctuation over extended periods of time.
Why Do We Eat to Cope with Stress?
Often, when trying to manage stress and anxiety we turn immediately to food. We feel a sudden, insatiable craving for sugary, fatty foods. Ice cream and potato chips! Eating is a way to turn off the over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic system.
Simply put, eating is a method to distract the mind and body away from the stress and associated symptoms. For example, blood flows towards the digestive organs, the breathing becomes slower, and the heart rate returns to normal. Unfortunately, this is only a quick fix, as food does not address route cause of your emotional reaction.
How do you tell if you are emotionally eating, or simply eating because you are hungry? Some tell-tale signs are mindlessly eating without focusing on how much or what you are consuming; craving sugary, fatty foods which will give you an instant rush; and afterwards there are often feelings of shame or guilt associated with eating such unhealthy food in such high quantities.
Because stress eating doesn’t solve any of the underlying issues, and often causes more, it’s important to move away from it as a stress soothing technique. There are many other positive, healthy, and just as soothing methods to cope with stress.
In the beginning as you start to establish better stress reduction routines, an easy first step is to simply satiate the craving without the fatty foods or calories. Try chewing gum, making a cup of tea, or using a toothpick. These have zero calories, and will provide a distraction from the cravings which will eventually subside over time as the stress subsides.
It will also give you a moment to focus on the reasons behind the stress and anxiety, and take away the mindlessness of automatically reaching for food. Instead, mindfully choose to try alternatives in the first five minutes of your stress related craving.
Mindfulness with Food and Emotions
This brings us to the second step in coping with stress without food, mindfulness. Half the battle with emotional eating is eating without focus and while distracted. Most of the time, finishing an entire tub of ice cream doesn’t stop the craving or the stress and you barely remember eating the entire tub!
If you slow down when you eat, focus on each bite, each chew, you will not only eat slower but pay more attention to what you are eating. This typically leads to better food choices as well as smaller portions.
Mindfulness is also vital in the first onset of stress. To take a moment to focus on what is triggering the anxiety, and then to also focus on exactly what you are feeling allows you time to process and perhaps come to a solution beyond food. Feeling powerless in the face of your craving is actually feeling powerless in the face of your emotions. This is why it is vital to stop, breathe and focus on each feeling as it passes. The more you understand your emotions, the more power you have to change them.
Establish Exercise, Healthy Diet and Self Care Routines
Finally, as you get more practice stopping the cravings in their tracks, the next logical step is to work on the underlying stress factors. Some stresses are beyond your control, like a relationship with a coworker or personal money issues. However, some non-obvious stresses are completely controllable such as getting daily exercise and eating healthy.
In fact, focusing on exercise, healthy diet, and starting a self-care routine can influence your ability to manage the external stresses and also reduce their potency. Getting a daily dose of exercise, eating primarily healthy foods and incorporating moments of self care (a bath, a massage, a pedicure) into your day is what even healthcare professionals recommend when advising patients coping with stress.