Understanding stress and why it makes you eat
Whether you call it emotional eating, comfort eating, stress eating or eating to soothe, most of us will have experienced this at some point in our lives. It is a completely natural response to a perceived threat, inspired by a desire to feel safe and comfortable.
But why, when faced with the same ‘threat’ do some people choose to eat, whilst others feel sick at thought of food?
To understand this, we must understand stress.
The stress response
In his fantastic book ‘Why Zebras don’t get ulcers’, Robert Zadolsky describes a stressor as anything which throws your body out of balance; the body’s response to this stress is a way to restore the balance. Physical stressors can include changes in temperature, altitude, infection etc, all of these will cause a response in the body which requires a concurrent balancing response. Yet these aren’t the stressors we would necessarily consider when describing stress.
Typical animal stress
For most animal’s stress comes in the form of being chased by something trying to eat you (physical stress) or a challenge to your place in the pecking order (psychological stress). The (very real) threat is over and done with after no more than 5 minutes. To meet this temporary challenge, these changes occur in the body:
- Rapid mobilization of energy stores (primarily glucose)
- Dampening of non-essential systems (digestion and immune system)
Once the threat has passed, for better or for worse, these systems will restore to their normal operations and life carries on.
Stress in human society
Fortunately, typical animal stress is rarely this acute and clear cut in modern human society. Most of us are no longer running from predators or physically fighting for our lives on a daily basis, but all of us face psychological threats regularly:
- Money worries
- Social standing
- Work deadlines
What classifies as a threat? Whilst there are some things which very obviously fit the category, the brain assesses all events through an ‘experience filter’ and based on past experience will view a whole range of different things as a threat, hence they are different for everybody.
As the brain is ultimately in charge of deciding what is classed as a threat, the body does not differentiate between a physical and psychological stressor and will respond in the same way:
- energy mobilization
- suppression of non-essential systems
The difference between a short-term stressor and repeated bouts of stress is the impact this can have on the brain. The first time you have an argument with a friend or were faced with a bill you couldn’t pay, you probably didn’t feel very anxious or worried beforehand. The 10th time however, the brain has learnt that this is an uncomfortable situation and it will start to ruminate and develop feelings of anxiety as it awaits the threat it knows is coming.
Stress and food
Food, especially high fat, high sugar foods, produce a dopamine and serotonin boost in the brain which provides comfort to a mind which is in tailspin.
When the hormone dopamine is present during an event or experience, we will remember it; as it acts as a reinforcer, it strengthens the association between: Stressor → action → result.
Serotonin is the feel-good hormone which is often spiked by sugary, high calorie foods, as historically these would have signalled safety and an area of plenty. So, it’s no surprise it only takes a couple of occasions where you have used food to soothe for your brain to remember the link.
HOWEVER: it could be that your brain remembers the feel-good boost from serotonin OR: it could be that it remembers the physical discomfort of eating whilst your digestion is impaired.
Hence, some people choose to eat, while others avoid it at all costs when feeling stressed.
How can stress induced eaters break the habit?
For those of us that eat in response to stress, while this may seem like a natural reaction, this is in fact a learnt response strongly reinforced over time i.e. a habit.
In Taking the emotion out of eating, I outlined some strategies that are equally applicable to stress induced eating. My course – Taking the emotion out of emotional eating – provides a more comprehensive toolkit for helping overcome using food to soothe, but here are some helpful tips to consider:
- Use mindfulness to identify the link between your emotions and eating habits.
- Choose one habit to focus on at a time and develop an alternative response. For example, go for a 10 minute walk during lunch break rather than visit the vending machine.
- The importance of this ‘one small step at a time’ approach cannot be overemphasised. Your brain can only deal with so much discomfort at a time, so it needs to be handled gently.
- Shape your environment to make the new habit as easy as possible.
- Be aware, if you have been a stress eater for some time, recognise that your automatic response to reach for food will be very ingrained, but never forget, you have a choice.
As I can testify, we can relearn how to cope with stress, then, as we make different choices, new habits will form so that over time things become easier, with new stress relievers able to help replace food. Good luck on your journey, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
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