Kelly Johnston, FNTP, RWP
I admit it. I am prone to stress eating.
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
You know...the kind of eating that is mindless, on autopilot, accompanies unease, and is a form of self-soothing. A global pandemic is a powerful trigger for such a thing. And it really is a "thing". When we are stressed, our adrenal glands pump out cortisol, which increases our appetite and our motivation to eat. We truly do find comfort in that the food we eat can dampen the stress response, particularly if it is heavy in sugar and fat. Throw in an insulin surge and blood sugar crash and it's not difficult to surmise that we can easily find ourselves riding a rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs, of stress and comfort and then back to stress again - a vicious cycle indeed.
Then there are those who are stress non-eaters. They lose their appetite when they're under stress or preoccupied, so they just don't eat. Generally, though, those that are stress non-eaters in the beginning of a crisis end up going the way of the stress eater if the circumstances go on for awhile. This is because in the beginning of a stressful situation, adrenaline precedes the rise in cortisol, and adrenaline can have an appetite suppressing effect. But as time goes on, adrenaline gives way to excessive cortisol, and thus stress eating takes over.
We know that eating when stressed isn't conducive to good digestion. If you've taken my classes or worked with me as a one-on-one client, you know that I emphasize all the ways we can influence our bodies to switch from "fight or flight" to "rest and digest". Taking time for self-care can be crucial for people in both camps. But for those who are prone to stress snacking, especially now when many of us are practicing physical distance in order to help flatten the curve of new CoVid19 cases, here are some ways to mitigate it.
First, when you are about to raid the pantry or fridge, stop and take what I call an empowered pause. Ask yourself if you're truly hungry, or if you're eating for comfort or out of boredom. Give yourself five minutes to explore your hunger cues, to put your mind on what you really need. Are you thirsty? Many times drinking a glass of water can turn the tide - and not just because it fills your belly, but also because physical thirst can feel a lot like hunger. If that doesn't do the trick, ask yourself if you're bored, fearful, compulsively checking social media, or just lonely. Many times, taking pen to paper will help you figure this one out. Try on these different emotions and see if any of them resonate with you. If you find that boredom is really at the root, make a change of scenery. Go outside. Take a walk. Get up from your work and stretch. Switch it up and change activities for awhile. If you find you really are feeling fearful , angry, or stressed, it's a good time to sit with those feelings for a bit and give yourself a few minutes (5? 10?) to write out those feelings, to express what you're feeling and explore why. Be okay with not being okay for a few minutes. Then take some time to breathe deeply, pray, recall Scripture, journal, write out your prayer, listen to relaxing music, or make a gratitude list. The objective is to accept those feelings, experience them, and then take time to reframe. This isn't denying our feelings or stuffing them - it is working through them and acting in a way that reaffirms us, grounds us, and gives us a chance to change our focus and get a new perspective. Action can do a lot for pulling us out of fear or stress or the doldrums. If you find that you're lonely, reconnect with someone who may be feeling lonely or isolated, too. For me, talking face to face through a conferencing platform or a video call is much more effective than a phone chat. It's comforting to see a smile on the face of a friend when we are keeping to ourselves physically.
What if, after this assessment, you've determined that you're not eating out of stress or emotion, but that you're really hungry and your body is truly asking for fuel? It's so tempting to fall back on processed, highly flavored, highly sugared foods, especially if they are readily available and if we've found comfort in them in the past. If you are one who struggles with this, it is imperative that you keep those triggers out of your house if at all possible, or at the very least out of your line of sight and out of your reach. Ask yourself if what you are about to eat will nourish you or if it will deplete you. Anything you choose will fall in one category or the other. If you can pick the nourishing option most of the time, you'll be ahead of the game. And remember that choosing the depleting options will often draw you further into a habit simply because of their addictive nature and the cyclical effect on blood sugar. At a time when you want your immune system functioning at its very best, choose foods and drinks that are nutrient-dense and supportive, and ditch the ones that are nutrient depleters and suppressive (think sugar, which depresses the immune system for hours after consumption). Food is, after all, medicine.
Are you a stress eater, too? Adopting strategies such as these can help us keep a semblance of normalcy rather than slipping into a hand-to-mouth snacking abyss that we'll be trying to crawl out of long after this trying time is behind us. Find an accountability partner, possibly a friend who shares your struggle and would like some accountability, too. Simply becoming conscious of your tendency to stress eat and not keeping it in the shadows can go a long way toward helping you stay on top of it. I speak from experience!
So, to summarize:
Set yourself up for success by:
consistently bringing a variety of nourishing foods into your home (as much as possible given our current situation), leaving the junk on the grocery shelves
forming a strategy, a plan of action, for when you are feeling bored, emotional, or lonely
engaging a friend to help you be accountable to your plan
Before you reach for something to nibble on:
drink 8 ounces of water - learn to distinguish hunger from thirst
take an empowered pause
ask yourself if you are truly hungry versus being bored, stressed, angry, fearful, or lonely
act accordingly with your previously formed strategy for each circumstance
These are skills that will be useful for a lifetime of conscious eating. We can be sure that stress will always find a way into our lives; it's part of the human condition. What really matters though is how we perceive that stress, how we cope with it. Being more in control of our stress responses can keep us from feeling at the mercy of whatever stressors currently impact us, and can open the door for emotional and spiritual growth. Our physical health stands to benefit as well.
What strategies do you have in place or will you begin to put into practice to get control of stress eating?