Eating for emotional reasons is pretty common, and stress is one of the biggest drivers of that kind of eating. Even worse, this can become a vicious cycle.
Consider this scenario. You’re really stressed because you have too many things to do, and they’re all important enough that you can’t just drop something. You go to the store to get some groceries and spot your favorite comfort food on sale. You weren’t planning to buy it, but suddenly you find that you’ve picked it up.
You pay for it and go home, where you eat the snack as fast as you can. (Or maybe you don’t even wait to get home and eat it in the car.) While you’re eating it, and for a short time afterward, you feel a little better. You enjoy the taste of it, and it distracts you from all the things you need to do.
Before long, though, that feeling fades. The stress returns, but this time you’re also not feeling that great physically because you ate more than you needed. Maybe you’re tired, or you have a bit of an upset stomach. Whatever the reason, you have a hard time getting motivated to get things done.
The longer you wait to start, the more stressed you are. And the more stressed you are, the more you might be inclined to go back for another snack and start the cycle again.
Does this, or another similar scenario, sound familiar?
If so, you’re not alone. Stress is one of the most common reasons for people to eat mindlessly, and it’s something I’ve been running into recently.
And if you also struggle with this, here are three tips to help move away from that type of mindless eating.
Tip 1: Give Yourself a Break
When you’re stressed out, one of the hardest things to remember is that this is the most important time to take a break.
You probably feel like you don’t have time, that you can’t afford a break because of everything else going on.
In reality, though, this makes a break even more important. When you’re going straight out and don’t give yourself a chance to catch your breath, you stop thinking as clearly. You make mistakes you wouldn’t normally. Your temper frays and you might lash out at others – or you might react more strongly to something upsetting than you would if you were more relaxed.
Even if it’s five minutes, allow yourself to stop without feeling guilty.
Tip 2: Practice Self-Care
Once you’ve given yourself permission to take a breather, the next step is to do something that nurtures you and feeds your spirit.
This is important because when you’re really stressed, self-care usually goes out the window. You’re more likely to get caught up in the idea that other people are more important and deserve your time more than you do, but that’s not true. You need to take care of yourself if you’re going to truly help anyone else.
This could take many forms. It might simply be taking a few minutes to breathe and look out a window instead of staring at a computer screen or your phone or taking care of other people.
One of the best things you can do is express yourself in a creative way. This gives you an outlet for your emotions, and it also provides a way to nurture yourself.
Going outside is another good option. Getting some fresh air, watching birds, going for a walk – all this helps you get centered. You could even combine this with something creative, depending on the situation.
For example, last week here in Maine we had a rare day that got up to 61 degrees, which is unusual for the beginning of March. I decided to take the opportunity to sit outside and catch up in my journal, and it was delightful to only need a sun hat, without a winter coat, hat, gloves, or boots.
Another idea is to do something that makes you laugh. You might be able to do this by playing with pets or kids, or watching a funny video. I’m lucky that my two cats make me laugh daily.
You can also listen to some favorite music, take a bath, talk to a friend, or any number of other things. Just make sure it’s something that helps you.
Tip 3: Slow Your Eating Down
Finally, you may still decide to eat when you’re stressed, and that’s okay.
If you do, though, try to make it a conscious choice instead of being on automatic pilot. And see if you can eat slowly enough to fully enjoy the food. After all, if you’re eating as a way to calm down and distract yourself, you might as well make the most of it!
I had to remind myself of this recently when I was having a stressful day – one of many in the past couple of months – and I found myself reaching for the Thin Mints I’d bought over the weekend. It was very, very tempting to take a whole sleeve and go sit on the couch, but I managed to take just a few of them and eat them slowly enough to taste them.
Managing Stress Doesn’t Have to Involve Eating
If you eat because you’re stressed, it’s likely a habit that you’ve developed over time, and with good reason. Eating is pleasurable, and it does tend to calm you down.
The problem is, eating only works in the short term. In the long term, you may get into a cycle of stress and eating that doesn’t truly help you manage the situation.
The good news is, you can learn new habits and find other ways to relieve stress. If you do this, you may find that your urge to stress eat decreases – and your overall stress level will also go down.
Have any favorite stress-relief activities of your own? I’d love to hear about them!