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Stress Eating Explained: Causes and How to Stop Eating When Stressed

If you often find yourself munching on chips, cookies, or other high-calorie, low-nutrition snacks when you’re stressed, you’re not alone. One study found that 38% of adults had eaten unhealthy foods or overeaten to manage stress over the previous month, and 49% of those had done so at least weekly. Stress eating is common, and luckily, we’re not locked into it forever. 

We can create new, healthier habits that last. In this article, we’ll discuss why and how we get “stuck” in the habit of eating to manage stress and how we can start developing healthier habits that actually feel good. There are some very simple, approachable steps you can take to start feeling more at home in your body, using an evidence-based approach to mindful eating. 

What is Stress Eating? 

Stress eating is the consumption of food in response to stress, worry, nervousness, or other unpleasant emotions. When we stress eat, we’re using food as a coping mechanism to try to regulate our nervous system and feel better. More often than not, we reach for high-sugar, high-fat foods to soothe our stress. And it’s easy to overindulge, since those foods stimulate the brain’s reward center…which can lead to more stress or other unpleasant emotions, such as guilt, shame, or despair.

Stress eating once in a while won’t immediately damage your health but, over time, too much of it can be harmful to your body. It is associated with obesity and difficulties losing and maintaining weight, as well as other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. However, many people who are not struggling with weight problems also stress eat. This behavior cycle is prevalent in all kinds of people, body types, and situations.

There are fundamental, biological reasons why people stress eat–but you can unlearn this habit. The key is having the right tools, such as a science-based approach to mindful eating that teaches you how to cultivate increased awareness around your habits. 

The Biological Link Between Stress and Eating

When stressed, your body produces high levels of the hormone cortisol, which can increase your appetite and cause cravings for high-calorie, high-fat foods. And the more stressed you are, the more you may eat–especially foods that are high in sugar.

Sugar and other high-energy foods cause the brain to release feel-good chemicals–especially dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps us learn patterns and behaviors, and drives us to repeat those behaviors. So it’s understandable if you reach for high-sugar, highly-palatable foods when you’re feeling stressed.

In the past, when humans experienced an extremely stressful situation–or a physically dangerous threat, such as seeing a bear or other wild animal–the body would stop producing cortisol and return to a relaxed state about 90 minutes after the threat passed. In modern times, while we’re rarely running from bears or tigers, our bodies often react to non-life-threatening stressors, such as an approaching payment due date, project deadline, or conversation with your boss in the same way. 

The brain perceives these stressors as threats, and the amygdala sets off an alarm system throughout the body, leading to the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Depending on our genes, personality, and life experiences, the brain may perceive these threats to be ongoing danger (chronic stress,) and our bodies continue producing higher levels of cortisol. This “flight or flight” mode can become so common, we may stop noticing that we’re on “high alert” and remain in this state–even though we’re not in acute danger.

We work long hours, juggle careers with family obligations, financial demands, and other responsibilities, and we often don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep, itself, can cause or exacerbate stress eating. When we’re sleep-deprived, we may have more cravings for high-sugar, high-fat foods, and we may be even more sensitive to stress. However, eating to relieve these tensions may trigger other emotions–such as guilt, shame, or sadness–which can simply trigger another bout of stress eating. The cycle becomes self-perpetuating, and it may seem we have no way of getting off this frustrating treadmill.

But you can learn how to control your stress eating, cope with difficult emotions, and create new habits you feel good about. And the process itself can be very rewarding. Let’s take a closer look at this habit cycle, which manifests as stress eating.

Why Am I Stress Eating?

Stress eating is a habit: a routine behavior that our brains have learned over time. We can break habits down into:

  • Why: why were we triggered to reach for food?
  • What: what food did we reach for?
  • How: how did we eat the food? 

The more we repeat these behaviors, the more deeply ingrained they become as habits.

Perhaps when we were younger, our parents took us out for ice cream after a disappointing experience or a tough day at school. When we ate the ice cream, our brain released dopamine, and we felt better temporarily. Our helpful brains learned that anytime we felt stressed, we could eat some ice cream and feel better. 

We all have hardwired biological patterns, and we don’t recognize them until we learn to pay attention and identify them. We carry these learned habits into adulthood, and now we reach for high-sugar, high-fat foods anytime we’re stressed, anxious, or upset–which may be often, since chronic stress is such a common phenomenon.

Remember: even if you’ve been stress eating for decades, you can still rewire your brain to create new habits that feel good. But dieting doesn’t always work long-term. Dieting requires the use of willpower, and willpower is associated with the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and decision-making. This is an entirely different area of the brain than where our habits are stored. When we’re stressed or otherwise depleted, the prefrontal cortex may go “offline,” and we’re more susceptible to our old habits.

Maybe you’ve heard the acronym, HALT; it refers to being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, which can cause us to act out of unwanted habits. Stress is no different. When we’re stressed, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, the more primitive areas of the brain take over, and we operate on autopilot. 

So it’s truly not your fault if you struggle to stop eating when you’re stressed. Your brain learned a behavioral routine to try to help you survive–as all of our brains have. But you can overcome stress eating. You can rewire your brain and create a new, healthier relationship with food–and the process can be surprisingly nourishing. 

How Do I Stop Stress Eating? 

The first step toward breaking the stress eating cycle and creating new habits is becoming more aware of our old, unwanted habits. And the best tool for building that increased awareness is mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment openly, purposefully, and without judgment. When we use mindfulness, we become more aware of our present-moment experiences: physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. It’s through this awareness that we can discover the causes and effects of our habits.

Awareness of the results of our habits is key to changing our habits. Training ourselves to become more aware of those results can take a bit of practice, but we all have this ability to be present and aware. And with practice, we can develop it more and change unwanted habits.

Learning to openly and non-judgmentally become aware of our thoughts, emotions, and other experiences helps us put space between the trigger (such as an unpleasant conversation with a loved one or a difficult day at work) and our reaction (eating to cope with stress). This space is created by developing awareness of the results, so our brains update the perceived and often outdated reward value. With practice, this allows us to change our habits rather than being controlled by them. And then we can make choices from a place of empowerment. This is how we can create lasting changes–without the use of willpower or force.   

When we explore the results of our stress eating habits mindfully–including everything that’s in our immediate experience–and see and feel how unhelpful they are, we can become increasingly disenchanted with those habits. So we notice not only the pleasant taste of food, but also the sensations and emotions we feel after eating, such as bloating, sluggishness, guilt, shame, or low mood. From there, the lure of stress eating loses its appeal, and the spell is broken. In this way, mindfulness is an extremely effective tool for overcoming stress eating.

And the process, itself, can be very rewarding. Curiously exploring your behaviors feels good and may lessen the intensity of your cravings. Studies show that practicing mindfulness all by itself can help reduce stress and improve our ability to regulate emotions,  causing actual changes in the brain. When we practice mindfulness, we calm down the body’s stress response and decrease our capacity to get carried away by worry, upsetting thoughts, or memories of negative experiences. Over time, as we’re less chronically stressed, the body will regulate cortisol production, which can also help us reduce our stress eating. 

Mindful awareness may feel unfamiliar at first, but we all have this ability and can develop it with practice. This is about becoming more aware of your immediate experience–not forcing yourself to change. Simply noticing what is going on without judging it will allow change to happen naturally over time. Try to maintain patience, kind curiosity, and a sense of playfulness as you start to build awareness around your habits.

Stress Eating Tips

You can use these tips to begin to rewire your brain and learn to make new behavior choices that feel good. Three tips are: 

  • Recognize the habit. Determine the “why,” “what,” and “how” of your stress eating patterns. Why did you reach for food? What triggered you: a taxing day, a difficult project, or a hurtful conversation with a loved one? And what did you reach for? It’s ok if you’re not sure what triggered you, since triggers are common and are the least important part of the habit. It may be helpful to use this worksheet to uncover the different stages of your habits.
  • Explore the result. With a sense of honesty and kind curiosity, notice all of the results of your stress eating. This helps your brain update the reward value of your habits. Maybe the food tasted great for a few minutes and your initial stress decreased, but after overeating, you felt nauseated, ashamed, or lethargic for hours after. Even after those first few bites, how long did the pleasure and release of tension last? How does your body feel afterwards? What thoughts are present? What emotions come up? Tuning into all of the unpleasant results of our habits makes us increasingly disenchanted with them, and over time, we’re no longer compelled to repeat those habits. We can do this in real time when we stress eat or retrospectively, by thinking back to the last time we ate to manage stress. What did you get out of it the last time you stress ate? And what would you experience if you repeated this pattern now? 
  • Make empowered choices. Once we’ve built up enough disenchantment with our habits, we are free to choose to do something more rewarding than eating to cope with stress. Maybe, instead of eating, we practice extra self-care, like taking a bubble bath, or treating ourselves to our favorite movie. We begin to discover that there are many activities that will help us feel better that don’t have unpleasant consequences. Or maybe you will choose to eat some high-sugar, high-fat food–but you can do so mindfully, and perhaps eat just enough until you’re satisfied. You’ll know when you’ve become disenchanted enough with your habits–and it will feel natural to make a different, healthier choice. 

This bears repeating: it is very important not to rush into this with a sense of obligation or self-punishment, or skip ahead to try to make new choices using willpower. That will only cause more stress. The best way to change this habit is not by pressuring or restricting yourself but, rather, by experiencing the results of your stress eating habits more fully in order to build disenchantment with them. This happens naturally with regular practice. 

So go easy on yourself, and remain open and curious. And be patient. It takes time to rewire your brain and form new habits, and you’re doing the best you can–which is enough. With practice, you’ll learn to respond to your experiences mindfully and make new, empowered choices. And you may even be a few pounds lighter on the scale, or you’ll feel lighter on your feet or more connected to your body. Whatever your goal, you’ll be free to choose behaviors you like and can feel good about.

Eat Right Now: The #1 Tool for Stress Eating Help

Even if you feel powerless over your stress-eating, you can change your relationship with food in a way that feels supportive–not restrictive. Engaging in a science-based mindful eating program–especially one with a supportive community of people just like you–can help.

Eat Right Now is an evidence-based mindfulness training program developed by neuroscientist and addiction psychiatrist, Dr. Judson Brewer. It gives you tools to uncover the root causes of your stress eating patterns, change unwanted eating behaviors, and create new habits that feel good. With daily lessons, tools to get to know your cravings, a journal, and a supportive online community–complete with live weekly calls and expert facilitators–you can learn to build new healthy habits that really stick. All while reducing stress and building a more peaceful feeling in your body.

Ready to reimagine your life with habits that feel good? Start the Eat Right Now program today.

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