Stress Eating

When you're experiencing stress, your impulse might be to power through, freak out, or stick your head in the sand. Bad habits such as overworking, smoking, or overeating can perpetuate the stress reaction. Here are some healthy tips on how to manage your stress before it manages you.
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New Yorker girl enjoying in the subway with music and coffee against a train.
New Yorker girl enjoying in the subway with music and coffee against a train.

Stress is a common trigger for overeating. Stress is not necessarily bad. Stress can:

  • Protect you from harm
  • Help you react when threatened
  • Adapt to changing circumstances
  • Motivate you to do your best
  • Add excitement to your life

However, when you experience excessive or chronic stress, or lack the skills to cope with it, stress takes a toll physically and emotionally. Since a stress-free life is not possible, it's important to learn to manage it before it manages you.

What Is Stress?

Stress is your body's response to an event or situation that is threatening, overwhelming, or harmful -- whether real or perceived. Stress results from your body's natural instinct to protect itself: the "fight or flight" response. Such reactions were useful when your ancestors frequently faced life-or-death situations. In today's society, few situations are life-or-death, yet your body still reacts as if they were.

When you're faced with a challenge, whether it is true physical danger, a deadline, or a traffic jam, the hypothalamus sends impulses through the endocrine (hormone) and autonomic nervous systems. These signals produce a surge of energy by making various organs dump stress chemicals, cortisol and adrenaline, into the bloodstream. This boosts your heart rate and blood pressure, dilates your blood vessels, and releases glucose into your bloodstream.

This response is intended to mobilize you for quick action. However, when the response is out of proportion to the actual threat, or when mobilization isn't possible or helpful, you will experience dis-stress.

This type of stress can wear down your body, exhausting you, and weakening your defense against disease (dis-ease). As a result, you may experience gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, or heart disease. It can also lead to distress habits like overeating, smoking, drinking, or drug use.

When you're experiencing stress, your impulse might be to power through, freak out, or stick your head in the sand. But busyness, overworking, smoking, overeating, drinking alcohol to excess, isolation, and taking frustration out on others perpetuate the stress reaction.

Manage Stress Before It Manages You

Pause and Focus: Instead of trying to escape what you are experiencing, pause and take a few deep breaths. Do a slow head-to-toe scan and become aware of what you're thinking and feeling, how your body is reacting, and what you're doing as a result -- without judging it. Just observe what is there.

Put Things in Perspective: When you're feeling overwhelmed, stop and ask, "What difference will this make one week or even one year from now?" and "Is this really important to me?" If the situation will have no long-term consequences and does not hold true importance in your life, it deserves less of your energy. If you notice you're in an "over-reactive mode," pause and breathe.

Change Your Thoughts: When you view something as manageable or even tolerable, your body will remain alert but not alarmed. Thoughts about the past or the future are often at the root of stress -- but the only thing you can control is what you focus on right now.

Take Charge -- If Possible: If you notice that you're feeling out of control (a common source of stress), ask yourself, "Can I change this? If so, how?" If you can take some action to correct, improve, or remove yourself from a situation, your stress will be reduced considerably.

Accept: When a situation is beyond your control, respect your personal strengths and limitations and use self-compassion. When you accept the situation (and yourself) as it is in this moment and just allow it to be, you won't compound the stress response by resisting it or overreacting to it.

Acknowledge Your Power to Choose: For example, you can choose to change jobs, discontinue your involvement with certain people, or limit your activities. You also have choices about how you perceive and react to the circumstances, events, and people in your life. Take a baby step in the direction you want to go. Empower yourself by acknowledging your ability to choose -- even if your choice is to do nothing more than breathe.

For more by Michelle May, M.D., click here.

For more on stress, click here.