How to NOT Emotionally Eat When You’re Stressed AF

Tired? Stressed? Worried? Overwhelmed? Anxious?

Hi, welcome to human life in 2017.  I will be your emotional eating guide.

Sorry, I don’t mean to make a sarcastic joke about anxiety, but really, we all suffer from it in some form or another.  We all have deadlines and bills and unhealthy relationships and work, etc.  I know this because I get a lot of messages and see a lot of posts about binging due to stress, emotional eating, mindless snacking, etc.

I wrote about my stress and tips here recently, but then I started thinking…. I don’t struggle at all with emotional eating like I have in the past, so I wanted to break that down and offer some tips.

Tips for emotional eating when you are stressed, worried or sad

Why I Think Emotional Eating Happens: Nature vs Nurture

The nature component….

Your adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol which increases appetite.  After a stressful situation, cortisol levels should fall, but sometimes the response gets stuck “on” and cortisol might stay elevated leading to increased cravings.

Also, the major mood transmitter serotonin is found in specialized cells in our guts.  When serotonin levels are low, we feel depressed.  When we feel sad or depressed, our brain wants higher levels to feel happier.  Studies show that ingesting carbohydrates boosts these levels.  This would be why we might typically want “junk” or “comfort food” which is high in fat, sugar/carbs.  Once we eat them, the foods have an effect in the body that inhibits parts of the brain that produce stress.

Studies have shown that in addition to feeding, exercise and sleep have marked effects on serotonin levels.

The nurture component…

Through my previous job as an intervention specialist, I studied and applied behavioral reinforcement and I see it happen a lot with food.

As parents, we start by offering our kids a snack in the store to keep them happy and quiet.  We offer special treats after a T-ball game or during an end-of-the-year school parties as a reward.  Sometimes we even say things like “You can’t have your ice cream unless you eat your broccoli” or “If you clean your room I will let you have a cookie”

Toddler gets a shot and the doctor offers a sucker to “feel better.”

All of this is teaching us to reward ourselves with food or that food can make us feel better.  We don’t mean to do it, but it is a learned response overtime.  Some kids even learn to purposely misbehave so that a bribe is offered.

So as we grow, we learn this pattern of behavior through reinforcement and then the habits are hard to correct once we are adults.  Hence the “I had a stressful week at work, I deserve a glass of wine,” scenario.

What I’m Getting At

Is it okay to reward yourself?  Absolutely!

The emotional eating I am referring to is the extreme; you find yourself inhaling a bag of Doritos and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and then being mad at yourself for it.  That’s the difference between A) having a treat when you want it (with zero guilt) and B) all-out smashing and then hating yourself.  <<That’s the pattern here that is an UNHEALTHY relationship with food and the emotional eating we need to address.

How NOT to Eat Your Feelings

1) Pause, don’t reflex

Fight or flight kicks in and your first reflexive instinct is going to be to reach for the high-fat/high-carb/junk and go to town.  Before you even start grabbing food, stop and take a few breaths.

2) Pinpoint the Type of Hunger: Mouth vs Cellular vs Heart

Mouth- a craving for something creamy, crunchy, sweet, salty…  Certain temperatures, textures, etc can be psychologically satisfying even if you aren’t physically hungry.

Cellular- fatigue or low blood sugar… Feeling tired or being too low on calories/too long between meals causes cravings for junk

Heart- sadness, anxiety, boredom, stress or any uncomfortable feelings.  If you are wandering around the kitchen looking for something it’s likely emotional.  If you do eat, do you over-indulge and then have terrible guilt or feel angry with yourself?

If your “hunger” cravings are emotional, keep reading…

3) Acknowledge the Problem/Stress

If your stress is due to an unhealthy relationship, work overload, worry about news headlines, etc you are going to need to address them.  Do you need to have a talk with your spouse?  Do you need to stop bringing work home or hire an assistant?  Do you need to stop watching the news?  The stress isn’t going to magically disappear.  Like it or not, you are going to have to face the issue.

In addition, I think these strategies of using a replacement behavior (i.e. replace the eating with something better) are helpful.

Instead of eating, try these:

  • Curate your social media- The more platforms you are juggling, the more overall time spent online = higher risk for anxiety and depression.  I would limit it to your favorite one or two platforms (hence why you see me on Instagram more than Facebook.) Also, if there are certain people who cause you stress, unfollow or unfriend.  CTRL ALT DELETE #yaheard
  • Turn off your phone- What you read and view before bed is likely to interfere with your sleep.  If you are checking work emails before bed, stop that immediately.  Designate specific “NO PHONE” times. (Remember from above, sleep is a major component to boosting serotonin.)
  • Post your emotions- If it’s helpful to share how you are feeling, do so without just being a bitchy whiny loser.  Blogging and sharing my real life on social media has helped me help myself.  It also may help you realize that other people feel the same way and can offer some support.
  • Snacktivist to activist- Shift your focus to being busy physically and your mind will be too!  Clean out a closet, go for a walk with some music, color or even write in a journal.
  • Try a food journal- Speaking of journals… this can help you see if your cravings are due to another issue or even track how you are feeling before/after your eat.
  • Swap a snack + add protein- Try finding a better alternative if you really do need to eat something.  Example: craving something sweet?  Try a chocolate protein bar because the mix of high protein, carbs and some fats will help you feel more energetic than a Coke which won’t fuel you and will lead to another crash.
  • Take a nap/relax- Don’t forget to pamper yourself.  You don’t have to get a massage weekly, but just taking an Epsom salt bath with some music on and candles lit can help release some stress when you are feeling it most.

I really never have an issue with emotional eating anymore.  I think my most helpful tip has been to use workouts to de-stress and get that endorphin fix.  I also make a strong effort to keep negativity away.  If someone or something causes me stress I immediately identify it and address it.  It’s so toxic and infectious!

I hope this has been helpful for you and please realize that you are not alone.  Many many American’s (if I had to guess I would say 90%) tie food with emotions.

My hope is that you can continue to learn how to have a healthy relationship with food and be the happiest version of YOU!



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