Stress Eating

Have you ever noticed that when you’re feeling the most stressed, often you want to eat more? Worse, you crave things that you know aren’t healthy for you, like candy bars, cookies, soda, or coffee. You know that, if you indulge, not only won’t you feel better, but it will likely make you feel worse. Still, though, you have a strong, sometimes irresistible desire to do it.

The reason this happens is, stress is a result of your subconscious mind thinking that whatever triggered the stress is something much worse than it is. The deepest part of your subconscious mind — your primitive mind — thinks that the trigger is going to kill you, and you’d better do something right now to save yourself.


“An effective way to pass the moment without giving in to stress eating or drinking is, first, to acknowledge what’s happening […]”

Sounds unreasonable and illogical, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, your subconscious mind doesn’t care if something is logical or reasonable, it only cares about keeping you alive at all costs, and it thinks it has to do that when you’re stressed. Having to run or fight to save your very life would require a lot of energy, of course. Chances are good that, at any given moment, you won’t have that level of energy available to you, so, your subconscious creates the desire for you to take in foods or drinks that will give you the burst of energy that it believes you need, and it’s usually those with lots of calories or caffeine.

The drawback is that, when you’re really only stressed, you won’t have the opportunity to make use of that extra energy, because you’re not really in danger, so you don’t have to run from or fight off the supposed threat. Thus, you may end up feeling sluggish or jittery from the extra, unused energy. At best, you’ll feel unsatisfied by whatever you ate or drank in response to stress because, likely, whatever triggered the stress will still be there. In addition, consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages often creates a desire for more.

Simply knowing why you have the desire to stress eat or drink may help you make the choice not to, but, likely, the urge will remain. The subconscious is very persistent. It doesn’t like to give up.

An effective way to pass the moment without giving in to stress eating or drinking is, first, to acknowledge what’s happening: something has triggered stress, and it likely isn’t life-threatening.  Then, take several long, slow, deep breaths, imagining that you’re drawing the breaths down to the bottom of your abdomen, the area just below your navel. This deep breathing technique counteracts the fight-or-flight mechanism that’s at the core of the stress experience. 

After you’ve taken the breaths, drink at least half a glass of water. Then, ask yourself if the urge is still as strong. Often just breathing and drinking water will be enough to allow the craving pass, but if you decide to go ahead with the eating or drinking, do it as slowly and mindfully as possible. Take note of the food or drink with all of your senses. When you put it in your mouth, hold it there for some time noticing what it feels and tastes like before you chew or swallow. Slowing down might help you to eat or drink less of the substance, which is also an improvement.

Becoming consciously aware of something you’re responding to subconsciously can be a very helpful way to begin to feel in control once again.

Frances O’Brien

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