How to Change Stress Eating Habits | TMOHP 008

If you’re a stress eater, you’ve probably felt frustration at what a difficult habit this can be to change. 

Reaching for something to eat is an easy, and often automatic coping mechanism. And when you’re stressed, your creative problem-solving abilities are usually not at their finest. It's not unusual to know you don’t want to be stress eating, and also feel like it's impossible to figure out how to not stress eat and how to not find stress eating to be the most appealing alternative available.

In this episode, I’ve got some strategies to share that you can use to shift patterns of stress eating, and also to shift the power away from food in those challenging situations.

You can even download a handy cheat sheet with all the strategies I share in the episode. You’ll find the link below.

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What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • Why stress eating presents particular challenges
  • The importance of compassion when tackling stress eating
  • The first thing to address if you’re not already doing it
  • Do-able strategies that have nothing to do with food but everything to do with ending stress eating

Listen to the full episode:

Featured on the show:

  • Download your free cheat sheet

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Full episode transcript:

If the last eighteen months have taught us anything, it’s that stress and circumstances aren’t always things we can control.

Today I’m going to talk about stress eating. It won’t be the only episode where we talk about it, because it’s a big topic, but before I cover anything else about stress eating, I think it’s important to start with what’s key for you to make an impact.

And that, is to talk about how to get a sense of effectiveness or empowerment or control back.

One of the things that’s so heavy about stress eating is that when we’re doing it - and I think most people stress eat sometimes - when you’re stress eating, you’re usually on autopilot, so you’re reaching for something to eat reflexively or reactively without really processing an intention to eat or, you’re feeling backed into a corner.

By this, I mean that, in that moment of feeling stress, it doesn’t feel like you have other options for managing your feelings other than to push them down or numb them or give yourself a temporary boost or reward or something else - by eating.

Some of the worst non-advice out there, and it’s all too prevalent, probably because it’s so easy to spout when you don’t really have an answer, is that if you’re overeating, you should become aware of the times when it’s stress eating, and “not give in to it.”

Let’s take a little step back here to talk about how empty that advice really is. Because, I know you know it, but I bet, if you’re a stress eater, there is a part of your mind that is sitting back, with her arms crossed, lecturing you in that same way for not being strong enough to “just not stress eat.”

You are a smart human being who has lived on this planet long enough to do some really tough things. I bet you’ve solved a tough problem or two in your life and probably worked through some really difficult situations. I’m willing to bet that if stress eating is a problem for you - or ever has been - and you had a way to “just not do it” you would have acted on that by now.

You know from episode 001 of this podcast that there’s always a reason you overeat - and that reason, may not thrill you, but it deserves our respect.

Stress eating can leave you feeling between a rock and a hard place when the circumstances are beyond your control and you don’t want to stress eat. So let’s start there and let’s take a deep breath and have a moment of compassion for how that feels.

To really, truly feel trapped. To feel like you don’t know other options. To be doing something you are frustrated with yourself for doing, but to feel compelled to do it anyway. It’s hard. It takes a toll on you. And when you layer on that cultural advice and that voice that may be in your head, that’s blaming you for “giving in” - well that right there can be a recipe for even more stress eating.

So, if I’m describing a situation you know, take a moment to breathe and to even put a hand on your heart and connect with the humanness of who you are and feel some compassion for how hard it feels to be stuck in this place with stress eating. The compassion is important. Very.

And now, let’s talk about some smart, simple things that you can probably do - at least some of them - to deflate and disrupt stress eating patterns in your life. Even when you can’t stop the stress.

Let’s start by giving your brain a break. You have enough to think about and execute on and remember. If you haven’t already, one way you can absolutely take some of the pressure off is to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Get something to write with and do a brain dump. List your worries, your to-do list, anything that’s swirling around up there on paper. When you do this you keep these things from taking up space inside your head, from short-circuiting your focus, and from constantly swirling. It also gives you a chance to get some perspective.

If you can, do something physical. Research has shown that it’s really powerful and important to work stress out of our body, and physical activity is a key ingredient in completing a cycle with stress. It’s so important to move the stress we’ve taken into our bodies, out of it. There’s a fantastic book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagowski that I highly recommend. I’ll put the link in the show notes. But move your body. Do an intense workout - not to burn calories, but to discharge stress. Go for a walk, dance to loud music. Getting physical brings you back into your body, and if your stress has been work-related or mentally challenging, you may be feeling disconnected. You’re also going to get more grounded - it’s another way to disconnect from swirling thoughts and anxiety.

When you’re breaking free of stress eating habits, it’s particularly important to pay attention to transitions. If you haven’t listened to episode 6 and 7, on transitions and overeating, check these out. And pay attention to the transitions in your day. Start pausing for a few minutes to ask yourself how you feel or what you need. Overeating, bingeing, and mindless eating often happen when you’re tired or operating on autopilot.

Speaking of autopilot, one thing that can be very effective with stress eating is to use pausing as an interruption. Take a teeny tine 30-second time-out before you snack at your desk or in front of the TV. Ask yourself whether it’s food you crave, or something else. Be curious.

By the way, I’ve put together a cheat sheet of these tips and I’ll put the link to it in the show notes so you can access it easily.

If it’s nighttime stress eating, especially, it very well may be something else and that something else may be sleep. If you’re tackling a pattern with stress eating, do everything you can to sleep a minimum of 7 - 7.5 hours every night. Lack of sleep causes weight gain, increased appetite, and cravings, decreased focus, less resilience to stress, irritability, and a host of other things you don’t need. If you’re not sleeping 7-7.5 hours this is the change you need to target first.

And give yourself a transition. Too often, stress eating can become the wind-down ritual before bed. Develop a ritual for unwinding and preparing yourself for sleep, so that stress, worries, and late-night eating are less likely to interfere with your ability to get a good night’s sleep

Since we’re talking about planning, know that even simple planning is empowering and can help you take the reins back from stress eating. Get out from behind your life in the places that you can. Do what you can to shift from being in reaction mode to being proactive and intentional. Identify the times of day when you tend to stress eat or overeat. To the extent that you can, you want to prioritize planning for these times. Make a plan for how you want to handle these times BEFORE you get there.

Okay. I know we’re talking about all these strategies in the context of stressful times and stress eating. And, again, to the extent that you can, know that you can shift the power balance by focusing on increasing your play and fun. Not numbing or avoiding the difficult stuff, but things that really feel fun or playful or good to you. It will be easier to avoid rewarding yourself with food if you’re filling your play and fun tank in other ways. Even in small, simple actions and choices.

And here’s the final thing I want to suggest today to help break the stress eating patterns. Like the others, it isn’t about monitoring or choosing your food. It’s about taking care of yourself so that you’re not feeling so tempted to use food as a substitute for this. Stressful times can feel like a constant stream of doing, and as I said, reacting. And it can be really easy to get disconnected from what we are needing or wanting, and to end up in an autopilot cycle of stress eating to soothe or numb or to distract.

Something you can do to shift the cycle is to designate unplugged times. Times when you will unplug from your phone and computer and your other devices. Take breaks daily. Set aside consistent daily time that is free of email, texts, and information overload. This helps you relax and helps you connect with what you really need – that isn’t food.

You’ll also free up some time that is probably more about mindless activity than it is actually focused productive time. And as a bonus, you can use it to do any of the other simple strategies I just talked about.

You can break patterns of stress eating. If you’re stressed and stress eating, what you’re doing isn’t getting you where you want to go, but simple steps and small redirections can begin to change the pattern. Don’t forget, the link to the cheat sheet with a summary of all these tips is in the show notes for you to download.

And if you’re finding the podcast helpful, take a moment to leave a review and share the podcast with others who you think would like it too.

I’ll talk to you soon.


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