Why our stress monster wants us to EAT

You may think you’re the only one out there overeating due to this unprecedented time of stress. You may find yourself face down in a pizza or a vat of ice cream. I hear you, I have been you. 

You may not remember how you got there, or maybe you very intentionally chose to cope with your anxiety, your stress, your brain absolutely freaking out about the state of the world by diving head first into a bag of Doritos or an entire box of girl scout cookies.

Okay, take a deep breath. Now let it out. 

It is okay. What has happened, is done. It is now in the past. 

Using food to cope with stress is a very common reaction. It is something almost all of us have done at one time or another.

 Eating is one of the most convenient ways to self-soothe that exists. 

Does that make it healthy? No. Does it make you hopeless? Definitely not. 

It does increase your risk of health problems later on, even if all that COVID-19 gives you is a cough and some immunity as it passes through your area. As an aside, this doesn’t mean it is okay to go out and frolic around… social distancing and staying home are being recommended to protect EVERYONE – we’re all in this together, please do your part. 

Obesity and eating unhealthy foods regularly is associated with a multitude of chronic diseases including diabetes, osteoarthritis, and heart disease.

Then why the heck do we turn to food in times of stress? 

Eating does a few things in the moment of stress:

  1. It gives you a hit of dopamine (that feel-good chemical that makes your brain chill out, even if only for a few minutes)
  2. It distracts you from whatever uncomfortable emotion you’re facing (in this case stress, worry, fear, etc) and soothes you temporarily 
  3. It makes you feel like you have control over SOMETHING… as that something goes in your mouth. We can always choose to eat or not eat
  4. It gives your body something to do to avoid your mind and those swirling thoughts creating your stress

Okay, so now that we’ve identified a few points about using food to cope, let’s touch on some science.

Remember our primitive brain, that part of the brain that’s ready for fight or flight at any given moment? Its big signal to turn ON and be ready is cortisol, otherwise known as “the stress hormone”. This is secreted by your adrenal glands. It is up-regulated (more is pumped out into your system) during times of stress… to get your body ready to RUN AWAY and AVOID DEATH.

This is useful if you are in imminent danger.

But not so much if you are constantly on high alert and producing increased levels of cortisol on a regular basis. This causes your body to run down, which decreases your immune system defenses. Which, as you may have guessed, can lead to you feeling poopy and tired, and getting sick more frequently.

Cortisol also slightly increases your metabolism and sends signals to other parts of your body to increase your appetite. So in a direct way, acute stress first decreases (cuz you aren’t going to want to digest when running from that tiger, cave girl), then it will increase your hunger signals. And of course it doesn’t focus your brain on all the healthy stuff – heck no. It wants you to get the most bang for your caloric buck so-to-speak.

So it leads you toward the cookies and away from the carrots. Pretty crazy right? Our bodies are pretty amazing when you step back and think about it.

The thing to remember is that while all of this is going on internally – your brain will be pushing you toward the easy fix. 


So are you doomed then to eat with any type of stress? No. 

This may be an easy, unconscious way to self-soothe and relax in the moment, but you always have a choice of what you are nourishing your body with. Especially when it comes to food. 

Our brains like to give us all kinds of excuses in the moment of why that gas station hot dog and soda are the best things for us, but most of us can agree that our rational brain knows better, even as it indulges in the feast of donuts, candy, and a frappuccino.

So, what’s a girl to do when COVID-19 is knocking on the door? 
Put down the ice cream and back away. 

Now is a great time to start practicing better habits. You don’t have to be perfect 100% of the time. 

Make a game plan for next time you know you’re going to feel some stress… and have a plan in place. When you find yourself halfway through a bag of chips, enact that plan (or better still, catch yourself before you autopilot into the pantry or the fridge. Stop, reconnect with your brain and body at that moment).

Breathe. Journal. Go for a walk. Reconnect and allow yourself to feel the stress, to describe how the stress feels in your body. Make a list of all the things you can choose to do instead of eating in that moment of stress.

 And move forward and eat what you planned for your next meal. Eat earlier if you find that you are physically hungry. Then continue to focus forward. The only time to look to your past is to learn from it.

Be kind if you don’t catch yourself early or if you only stop eating your stress-food at the end of the moment.

Each time you practice a new habit, it becomes easier.

You are worth treating yourself well and your body with respect. I hope that by understanding a little bit more about why we eat when stressed, you can decide to move forward in healthier ways during this challenging time in our world. 

I encourage you to try these techniques and then let me know how they are working for you. You can do this. Choose to thrive.

Have a great week,

Liz

Let’s stay in touch.

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