The Betterment Project
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How To Stop Stress & Emotional Eating

In our society, it’s easy to assign labels like “good” and “bad” to just about everything. When we can’t avoid things like stress and food, we give them assignments of good or bad to help us know what to gravitate towards and what to avoid. 


However, some of us struggle to accept the bad with the good, and we get almost obsessive in our quest to avoid the “bad” things in our lives. This applies to cravings, emotions, appetite, and eating habits (comfort foods), weight gain, physical activity, and so much more. 


Avoiding bad things is an instinct, but there also has to be a balance in life. For example, if you try to avoid rain, you’ll find yourself in the desert. We need a little rain in our lives, and we learn to coexist with the things we think are “bad”. 


The same can be said of stress, our emotional responses, and food. If we learn to let these natural parts of our lives coexist without causing detriment to each other, we have a more balanced life.

Stress Is Stress


Stress is part of life, and there can be stress that comes from happy things and stress that comes from unpleasant things. Trying to avoid stress won’t work for long because you have to live, and stress is just a part of that. 


Assigning stress in your life as good or bad can actually cause you more stress because you feel like you should avoid the bad stress, and sometimes you just can’t avoid bad things in your life. 


While labeling stress as good or bad isn’t that helpful, you can think of stress in terms of healthy and unhealthy. Healthy stress like welcoming a new baby, the alertness you have when you’re driving, ending a toxic relationship, or your cardio session at the gym are forms of stress that lead to healthier, safer, or happier living, and healthy stress is temporary. 


Unhealthy stress stems from chronic stress or just too much stress. Stress works like pressure on our lives, our bodies, and our minds. Too much pressure can lead to negative effects. In order to manage our stress, we need to learn to identify our stressors, limit unhealthy stress in our lives, and find ways to calm ourselves when the stress passes. 


When it comes to food, some stressors include:


  • Mindful eating
  • Boredom eating 
  • Junk food
  • Shame
  • Feelings of guilt
  • An eating disorder
  • Emotional hunger and physical hunger
  • Negative emotions
  • Binge eating

Food Is Food


Food is an essential part of our lives. It sustains us. It gives us energy and helps our bodies to run efficiently. It also is a staple part of our culture and the way we socialize with other people. Cooking food can be a creative outlet for you, and food does provide some of us with a measure of comfort. 


Turning to food for comfort is probably one of the biggest driving forces that tie stress to eating. When our stress levels reach a critical level, we just want to feel good. We know brains associate eating with reward. If it didn’t, why would we give our dog a treat when it does the right thing?


We do the same thing with ourselves. When we make it through a hard day, we reward ourselves with a treat of our own choosing. A bag of chips, some dark chocolate, or a glass of wine sounds better than a healthy snack like veggies. Our brain chemicals start receiving the messages from the consumption of food. 


For example, food elevates our endorphin levels while stress works to diminish them. Endorphins work at alleviating pain in the physical or emotional form. So, to our minds, food equals pain relief from stress (from the hormone cortisol) which causes us to feel pain more intensely.  


It doesn’t help that Americans live in a society where we are surrounded by highly palatable foods that trigger the reward centers of our brains that release the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, and the cycle of guilt we feel when the “good” foods aren’t as desirable because they do very little to activate the brain reward centers.


As with stress, it’s a good idea to reframe your view of food to be healthy and unhealthy instead of “good” and “bad.” Applying balance allows you to enjoy food in general while respecting that a healthy lifestyle must be a series of majoritively healthy choices. 


Peaceful Coexistence


Since we can’t live our lives without any stress at all and we can’t give up food either, it’s crucial that we learn to live in peaceful coexistence with our stress and our food. How to achieve peaceful coexistence between stress and food depends majoritively on which is easier for you to manage. 


If you can develop ways to manage stress, your stress and emotional eating will subsequently diminish. If you’re closer to establishing a healthier relationship with food, it may be easier to take that approach first. For most of us, managing stress is the best place to start for managing emotional eating.


Stress Management


When you can manage your stress, you can break the hold stress has on you and over your life. The goal of
stress management is to ultimately achieve balance in your life. In a balanced life, you have time for work, relationships, fun, and relaxation, and when you’re in control, food can be a healthy part of that life without adding to your stress. 


You can try things such as:


  • Yoga
  • Meditation 
  • Seeing a psychologist or registered dietitian 
  • Make cooking one of your hobbies

1. Tag Your Triggers


Naming your stressors or identifying what triggers feelings of stress for you can help you focus on ways to improve your stress and how you cope with it. For example, if you feel overwhelmed by constant deadlines, it may be easy to point to your workload as a stressor. 


Unfortunately, it takes an honest look at our lives to identify any underlying stressors. After close inspection of your problem, you may find that your own procrastination that’s actually causing your stress.


Accepting responsibility can be a tough challenge, but the good news is that when it comes back to your own habits and attitudes, it also means you have the power to make changes. This includes stress eating.


2. Give Yourself an “A” for Effort


When you’re learning stress management mechanisms, it’s important to remember the four A’s of stress management. When examining a stressor, think about which of the four A’s you should apply. The four A’s are:


  • Avoid the unnecessary 
  • Alter the situation
  • Adapt to the stressor
  • Accept the things you cannot change

In the example of constant deadlines, it may be possible to alter the situation by creating a more balanced schedule. It might also be possible to adapt to the stressor by reframing how you view your deadlines. Are they an opportunity to show off your skills? Examining your stressors and how to manage them with various approaches can give you a new perspective in other areas, like stress eating, too, and give you a sense of control.


3. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle


A healthy lifestyle is a broad umbrella for a lot of healthy decisions that we make every day to improve our quality of life and increase the balance we have. Some good examples of healthy lifestyle choices include:


  • Eating a healthy diet. Remember that this doesn’t mean you can’t have certain foods. It’s about balance. Balance protein, fiber, and healthy fats with a treat that tastes amazing.
  • Routine exercise. Exercise releases soothing brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine which can relieve stress by lowering high cortisol levels and reducing feelings of sadness and loneliness.
  • Prioritizing sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep can have a powerful impact on your ability to manage stress and rethink problems, such as your eating behavior.

4. Relieve Stress in the Moment


It’s also essential that we learn to calm ourselves in the moment. Quickly finding our zen in the moment can help us manage stress as it comes. When doing this sounds easier said than done, you may want to seek out a little assistance. With
Complete Calm De-Stress Gummies, you’ll begin to notice an almost immediate calming sensation from the key ingredients like the terpene blend. 



Learning to relieve our stress in the moment with things other than feel-good food will help break the ties that bind our eating to our stress.


5. Learn To Live in the Moment


Learning to balance your life and manage your stress, requires a good amount of learning to live in the moment you’re in. Worrying about the next 20 minutes or the next 20 years will not improve them, and it definitely won’t improve the moment you’re in. Learning to be present in the moment can limit the mindless eating that occurs when we’re eating and thinking outside the moment. 


Summary

Food is essential to life. Stress is a natural part of life. Can’t we all just get along? You don’t have to eliminate stress or food from your life to manage either. Finding ways to manage stress and develop a healthy relationship with food can help reshape the ties that seem to bind them. 


Remember that in stress management, it’s essential to be honest with yourself, but it’s also key to be kind and take good care of yourself as well. When you can improve the hold stress has on you, you lessen the need to self-soothe with food, and food can just be food. Stress can just be stress. And, you can just be you. 


Sources:

5 Brain Chemicals That May Affect Your Decision to Overeat | themindfulword.org 

Highly Palatable Foods: The Brain Reward Pathways and Connections to Overeating | integrativerd.org 

Stress management | mayoclinic.org 

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Meet our Experts

This article has been reviewed by members of our Scientific Advisory Board.

  • Dr. Jay Cowin, Nutrition Expert

    Founder of Functional U, a Nutrition, Performance & Optimal Health practice.

  • Dominick Gauthier, Performance Expert

    Former Olympic Athlete, Founder, B2ten Foundation (coach to multiple Olympic Champions)