How to Stop Stress Eating | TMOHP Episode 033

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Stress eating can feel like such a trap, especially if the stress you’re experiencing isn’t immediately within your control. There’s a lot of (bad) advice out there about how to address stress eating habits that’s either unrealistic, overly simplistic, or just doesn’t work. That said, there IS a process you can use to interrupt stress eating.

Even when you’re stressed.

Even when you’re short on time.

Even when things are tough.

You don’t have to grit your teeth or find something to keep your hands busy 24/7. Instead, I have some suggestions for how to approach your stress eating habits from a different perspective.

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • 5 ways to interrupt stress eating
  • What it looks like to use compassion when you’re stressed
  • The power of warm blanket strategies
  • Why you can’t relax when you’re stressed and what to do about it
  • Why small steps are the way to go

Featured on the show:

  • Download 5 Ways to Change Stress Eating Habits (even if the stress isn’t stopping)

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  • Take the free Hidden Hungers Quiz and find out your primary Hidden Hunger and your best place to start shifting your eating and your weight.
  • Your Missing Peace is my 16-week program for women ready to stop overeating and emotional eating for good. Go here to learn more.
  • Private Coaching. One-on-one coaching is for you if you’re looking for something that’s completely individualized and specific to your situation. Openings are limited. Learn more here.

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Full episode transcript:

Today I want to talk about one of the most disempowering kinds of overeating, and that is stress eating. Stress eating, which is as you know, overeating that happens or eating that happens as a response to stress or as a way of trying to cope with stress. It’s so frustrating because most of the time, you know it's happening. You understand the reason that you are reaching for something to eat, even if you aren't hungry, but you probably feel a degree of helplessness or powerlessness around the stress or around changing the situation. And, the advice that is out there about what to do about stress eating is also infuriating. I'm sure that you have heard the absolutely inane, incompetent advice. Like “Don't give into stress eating. If you’re stress eating, realize that what your body needs, isn't really food and don't do it.” I mean, really? My other favorite bit of non-helpful advice is “If you're stress eating, you need to do some things to reduce your stress.” Right, we know that.

Here's the thing, if you want to change stress, eating habits, of course you want to minimize your stress. If you want to be a happy person, you want to deal with, extreme stress or stress that's getting in the way of you living your best life. We know that if you want to break free from stress eating the idea that the way to do this is to create a stress free life is unrealistic. It's impossible. It's perfectionistic thinking, and it's probably going to lead to more stress and frustration as you try harder and harder to do this thing that isn't going to happen today. What I want to talk about are real ways that you can change your relationship with food in the midst of stress. So, ways that you can change stress eating habits, transform them into something else, or another way of dealing with stress. Even when the stress isn't going to stop.

I've got five ways that you can interrupt the process of stress eating. And I've also got a downloadable PDF for you that's going to summarize the five different strategies that I'm going to talk about today. I will put the link to that in the show notes below the episode.

How do you interrupt stress eating? If you cannot interrupt the stress? The first thing to do is to harness compassion. Another way to think about this, that I'm going to describe to you in a moment is to harness the power of being seen. Now, here's what I mean about this too often, if you are in the middle of stress, it feels very frantic. It feels like the power of an out of control train coming at you when you're stressed. And then you find yourself turning to stress eating your reaction is going to come from a place of stress.

And it is really easy to fall into that place of frustration and anger with yourself and negativity, right? When you're already stressed, the negative thoughts, they flow pretty easily. And so it is under stress when you're doing something or feeling triggered to do something that you don't want to do to have these harsh thoughts, right? In that moment, your thoughts can be pretty unkind, pretty judgmental and pretty harsh. So if you are already stressed and you find yourself eating in the way that you didn't want, it is pretty human to be thinking things like, uh, why can't I do this? I should do better. Why can't I control this habit? Damn it. I blew it again. Those kind of thoughts. While these kind of reactions are not out of the realm of normal, when you're under a lot of stress, they're not helpful. If you want to break the cycle of overeating.

In fact, that feeling that you've blown it, or it's all your fault, or you haven't done a good job and that anger at yourself is quite likely to lead to more overeating. This is why it is really important to start with compassion, or when you catch yourself in that cycle of frustration to begin again with compassion. You're stressed maybe overwhelmed, maybe tired, and you're probably in need of a break. And while a break can be really, really helpful. I know that sometimes that isn't possible. It is possible in these situations to practice facing the situation and facing yourself with kindness, with respect and with compassion. So I know that sounds very nice, but it's not clear at all what that looks like. So let's talk about that. And this is where I want to talk about the power of being seen in really tough times, stressful times, times, where it feels like you can't do anything to make things better. The experience of being seen can be extremely powerful. I want you to think about times when someone has held you when you are upset, just given you a big hug. Even if that person did nothing to change the situation, the experience of having someone there with you who was acknowledging your pain, who cared, it was probably powerful. And it was probably comforting.

You owe it to yourself to give that same kind of compassion to you.

You can actually begin to interrupt stress, eating cycles with compassion, and with this power of seeing yourself acknowledge how you feel so often when we're stressed, remember we're just plowing straight ahead, take a moment, see yourself and acknowledge how you feel. You may even want to say it out loud. Something like, ah, I am feeling so stressed and overwhelmed right now. I'm feeling lost right now. Add some compassion, just like you would for a friend. So you could say things to yourself like this is really hard. I'm feeling really overwhelmed. I'm really trying here. I'm having a hard time when you see yourself. And when you address yourself from this place of compassion, rather than, uh, that place of exasperation or self blame or frustration, that is so easy when you're stressed out. But when you, when you make that shift, when you address yourself from a place of compassion, when you see yourself take that simple step is going to make taking next steps easier. So start with compassion and see yourself.

Here's the next thing I want you to think about when you want to change your stress eating habits, when you're stressed and busy, it is so important to give of yourself enough space, to be able to see the possibility of doing something differently. Stress eating happens without much thought reaching for something to eat. It could be a really old habit, or it could be a shortcut that you've learned even as a way to show yourself some compassion, even though it isn't really showing self compassion, because it's not really seeing yourself. I know you are busy, but taking a few minutes to take a few deep breaths, a few seconds to take a few deep breaths or to feel your heartbeat, or to close your eyes and listen to a favorite song, taking a few minutes to check in with a really, really short meditation app on your phone. Something like this can be just what you need to help you make a choice that isn't stress eating.

Here's another way to think about this. If you don't have any space to feel or to think, how can you do something different if you don't give yourself to just those few seconds to think, to feel and to make a choice, how can you make a decision to do something different than that autopilot habit that you have done so often before? So give yourself space, just a little bit of space to see what is going on and enough space to think about doing something different. And this is the point in the podcast where you say yes, but if I knew something different to do, I would be doing it. I want to introduce you to something that I call the warm blanket strategy. The warm blanket strategy is an example. I'm just going to give you a little piece of it, but it's an example of the kind of strategy work that we do in the missing piece program.

So stress eating can feel inevitable because you're in a situation you don't know what else to do. And you know, think about stress. You feel overwhelmed. You may feel time crunched. It's, it's hard to do. What I just suggested is as the second step, which is to give yourself a breath, to think about the possibility of doing something different. But when you do that and your brain is saying, what do I do? What do I do? Which is a stress response. And you don't know what else to do. It can start to feel like you're trapped. You might even feel like I don't have a choice. The only thing I can do in this situation to feel better is to eat. This is when you want to pull out and practice the warm blanket strategy. So I'm going to share this with you. Now, you remember a time when you were little and you got sick. I want you to think about that. You really felt crummy. You were sick and there was nothing anybody could do, no matter how much they loved you to make you not be sick, you were sick and you didn't feel good. However, you might have had a parent or someone who cared about you, who did little things that made you feel better, little things that made you feel better, even if they really didn't.

Or if you had a little someone that you cared about who was sick and you could not make them unsick, there may be, or have been things that you did for that little person that made them feel better. Even if they didn't really make them feel better, meaning they made them feel better, or they comforted them. They soothed them. even if they didn't really solve the problem or make them unsick. Now I call this the warm blanket strategy because in my family, we had a special blanket that my mom would bring out when we were sick. And when we were sick, we would lie on the couch and you'd get wrapped in that warm, super soft, special blanket. And I remember sometimes when I was really sick and I felt really crummy, but I felt better under that blanket, even though I was still sick and I had a fever.

And I remember one time when I had horrible chicken P that warm blanket helped. So if you want to interrupt old habits of stress, eating do let unstoppable stress trip you up. You may not be able to get rid of the stress, but you can start to develop a list of your own warm blanket strategies. I want you to develop a list of ways that you can show yourself care and compassion and kindness, even though the stressful situation isn't going to be changed, how can you be kind to yourself while you are in the stressful situation, stress eating itself. That may actually be your current arm blanket strategy. So, you know, if you frame it that way, think about what are some things that you could put in place that instead, that would feel more like a warm blanket and wouldn't have that hangover effect that the stress eating habit does.

So I want to remind you that if you have had a history of struggling us eating, and if you've had a history of having thoughts, where your brain tells you that you are trapped, that you don't have any choice, that there is nothing that you can do besides stress eat. When you start to think about new ideas, new thoughts, new ways of responding to that urge to stress, eat your GRA. Your brain is going to push back. Your brain is likely to tell you this isn't possible. Your brain is likely to come up blank. When you start to try to think of warm blanket strategies. That's okay. Keep asking the question. This is how we grow our brains. We grow our thoughts in new directions. And if you can't come up with any warm blanket strategies, ask your, what would you do for a friend? How would you talk to a friend? How would you comfort and soothe a friend or a small child? And see if you can pull some ideas from what you would do for, for somebody else that you can apply to yourself.

Now, speaking about your pushing back to strategies, be prepared for your brain to push back to this next way of intervening with stress, eating that I want to talk to you about. I want you to hear me out on this one. If you are stressed and you are struggling to not stress eat, I will want you to focus on relaxing. In fact, I want you to call this strategy, relax. Anyway. I want you to relax anyway. Even if it feels impossible. And I know this is the point where your mind is screaming. I can't relax. I'm too stressed. This is perfectly normal. And I know that sometimes there is nothing more frustrating than trying to breathe deeply or trying to relax your mind when your thoughts are racing or when your adrenaline is flowing or when your stress is over the top. And so what happens a lot of the time is people try these relaxation techniques.

They turn on their, their relaxation apps, or they try their breathing exercise. And it feels like it's not working because their mind is working in the opposite direction. And so they give up, they feel defeated and you might even go reach for something to eat. But here's the thing to interrupt stress, eating. You want to relax, even if it feels impossible, even if you feel like you are doing the world's worst job of it, and here's why your body works like everybody else's body, your physiology can go in one of two directions. It can be relaxing. This is a physical response. So your body can be on a relaxation trajectory, which means that your breath is slowing down. Your breath is deepening. Your heart rate is slowing down. Your, your body is relaxing. That's one direction your body can be moving in, or your body can be growing more stressed and anxious, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, more body tension.

If you're in the middle of stress. And if your body is ramping up with that stress response, it makes great sense that in the midst of that experience, trying to LA is going to feel difficult. If not impossible. I mean, I think about it, like, like imagine you've got these gears and they're all moving one way. And then you're like, eh, I'm going to just go the other way. And you're trying to back up these gears, you've got this momentum going one way and you're trying to back 'em up. And that's exactly why you want to relax. Even if it feel like you can't, even if it feels like you're doing a really crappy job of it, because it's perfectly okay, what you need to remember. What is so important for us all to remember is that your body can't move in both directions at once.

Anything you do to calm your body down. Even if you are doing the worst job of it, anything you are doing to calm your body down will move your body away from the direction of becoming more stressed, it will move it away from the direction of becoming more stressed and toward feeling more relaxed. Even if it is only the smallest little notch. It's important to remind yourself of that. When you try to do the deep breathing and guess what? You can't take deep breaths because you're actually slowing down an anxiety response or a stress response. That part of which is having more shallow breathing, right? As you start to practice, your breathing's going to get deeper. Even if it doesn’t feel very deep, because it was pretty shallow to begin with. You are reversing the process you're going from stressing out to relaxing more. It is never a waste of time to try to unwind or to decompress or to relax.

Even if it's just a little bit, it is a key skill for breaking the stress eating cycle. It is a key skill for taking your power back from the stress reaction in your body. Even if you can't change the stressful situation. So here's the last key move I want to cover. If you're trying to break that cycle from being a stress eat, when you're under stress to doing something that serves you better, I want you to think about making a move from being reactive to proactive. One of the reasons that I put so much on taking your power back and feeling empowered and embracing your own sense of power is because one of the reasons it is so easy to get in, stuck in cycles with overeating and emotional eating, is that we lose our sense of power. We lose our sense of effectiveness, and there are a whole host of reasons for that in this situation, you know, stress can leave us feeling very reactive.

One of the things that is so painful and uncomfortable about stress eating is that it often feels absolutely out of our control, right? Sometimes it is happening on autopilot, or it feels like I don't really have a choice. I don't know what else to do. I'm backed into a corner. So stress eating is often more of a reaction than a deliberate choice, or if it's a deliberate choice, it does not come from a place of feeling empowered, finding ways to move from one of and think about reaction is like things are being thrown at you and you have to catch them. You are at the mercy of what is happening to you. Finding ways to move from being re reactive, to sitting in a sense of your own power so that you can be proactive so that you can make choices so that you can make decisions.

It not only a allows you to come from a much greater place of effectiveness with your relationship with food, but the difference between activity or being reactive and being in a place where you're proactive, that sense of having a sense of control or being in charge this all by itself, reduces my stress. An important key, a really important key to breaking stress. Eating habits is starting to identify the places and the times, even in the midst of stress, when you are most able to be proactive, one of the ways that we can move from being reactive to being proactive is to break things down into smaller steps. So ask yourself, what can I take charge of when in the midst of whatever is going on? What are the times when you're best able to intervene? When are you best able to make a choice that is something other than stress eating when in your day or in your week, are you best able to implement the strategies that I've been talking about in this episode?

When are the best times for you to come up with some creative alternatives or to put new plans in place? It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you're trying to break a habit that feels so powerful, especially when you are stressed. So you want to be really careful about falling into all or nothing thinking instead of trying to focus on the whole forest at once, which is overwhelming, I stressful for most of us ask yourself what small piece is, something that you feel like you can start with, or what is the piece that you can tackle today? What is the place in your day where you could feel effective? What is the place in your day where you could take a moment to think about alternatives? What is the place in your day where you could stop and practice compassion? When you focus on making doable choices, small choices that are different from your old patterns.
That's when you start to create transformation, that is how you break the cycle. Stress. Eating is a powerful cycle, is tied up with stress and your thoughts and your beliefs about stress and old ingrained habits. And it takes a moment to create a different kind of cycle. Now, remember, I have a download for you of everything I'm covering today. It is in the show notes. So be sure to go and grab that because what you're doing by interrupting the a stress cycle is you're building a new, better, more effective cycle for yourself. And it works in a circle too. So you're going to continue to rinse and repeat through these different strategies. And you are always going to start with compassion, stress eating is a pattern that you can change and you do not have to create to some kind of perfect unattainable life to be able to do that. So go grab the download in the show notes so you can keep practicing these steps. You don't have to get it perfect. You won't get it. Perfect. That's okay. You're just going to keep circling through the steps and if you get stuck or if it feels like it's not working, you circle back to self compassion, stress eating is beatable. You do not have to get rid of the stress to break the habit of stress eating, and you can do this. I'll talk to you soon.

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Your Missing Peace is the psychologist-designed program that provides the tools, the support, the coaching, and the confidence to create freedom from emotional eating and overeating. Finally - emotional eating help done right! Your Missing Peace is specifically designed for smart, high-achieving women who are DONE with diets, who want a lasting solution, and who are ready to take their power back from food, from overeating, and the scale. 

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