a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Stress. Just looking at the word stress can make me cringe. We have all felt stressed at some time or another. Stress is a natural feeling or state of being we experience when we feel overwhelmed, unprepared, or tense. Stress is common. Our busy lives breed stress. Traffic jams, high work demands, spouses, children, the weather–you name it and it can probably be linked to stress. Because stress-inducing situations occur so regularly in our everyday lives, it is important that we learn healthy, effective ways to manage that stress.
Of course most of us already know that it is important to cope with stress in healthy ways, but we don’t always utilize those healthier forms of stress management. Think about it for a moment, what is the first thing you think to do when you are exhausted, stressed to the max? A lot of people turn to food or drink for relief. Why is that? Well, that chocolate bar and glass of wine is a much easier, quicker “fix” than diving into your feelings! (I imagine most of you are now nodding your head in agreement…)
So, why is it such a natural inclination to rely on certain foods when we are stressed out? Well, food is powerful. It elicits responses from many different senses: taste (duh), smell, sight, & touch. We form strong connections between food and feelings. Prime example: if you have ever experienced illness or food poisoning after eating something, chances are the name of that food alone can cause your stomach to churn.
Food has the power to affect our feelings. Think about your favorite comfort foods. Just imagining that food right now can make you feel good. (self-disclosure: cheese pizza!) Comfort foods remind us of a time when we weren’t so stressed. Additionally, some of our comfort foods, like chocolates or caffeine, actually have chemical altering abilities that really do make us feel physically better, for a short time at least. It makes sense why we use food or drinks to reduce stress–it seems to work!
These connections reinforce our tendencies to eat to feel better. And when we are overly stressed, we tend to overeat to compensate for those high levels of stress. Simply stated: the more stress, the more chocolate, cheeseburgers, and cabernet we indulge in. Yes, comfort foods can help relieve our stress temporarily. But, stress eating over time results in weight gain, clogged arteries, and no real resolution of stressful symptoms.
If you are someone who tends to turn to food for comfort and stress relief try some of these suggestions below to help CURB your stress eating habits:
Cut out the candy
Chocolates, candies, and other sweet dessert treats are common foods we reach for when feeling stressed. The (un)official scientific, empirical-research supported reason we do this is obvious: because chocolate candies are absolutely delicious! Another, (arguably more scientific) reason we gravitate towards candy, especially chocolate, is because it can actually give us a small mood boost! The sugar and caffeine in some candies give us a small sugar “high” that can reduce headaches and increase energy to help us get through those stress inducing tasks at hand. However, we ultimately end up crashing from that sugar high and may even feel guilty for indulging in yet another unhealthy, stress eating binge. Cut out the candy. Try substituting sweet fruits or mixed nuts with small pieces of chocolates sprinkled in for the sweet & savory (semi-healthy) combo.
Use alternative stress relieving activities
What can you do now? I’ve just told you to cut out the delectable chocolates and tasty caffeinated drinks even though they do, sort of, help–temporarily. We need long-term solutions, with longer lasting effects to effectively manage our stress. There are countless activities you can participate in to decrease your stress. Of course I have to mention exercise and physical activity as one of the main ways to relieve stress and improve our overall mental and physical health. If you enjoy exercising, keep it up, it’s good stuff! If exercising isn’t your thing, don’t force it on yourself–that could actually increase your stress! Find activities that are calming, peaceful, and relaxing for you. A short list to get you started: read a book, take a bath, meditate, watch TV, draw/color, garden, clean the house, etc. Most of us already have a few healthy de-stressing techniques we like to use. My challenge for you is to use one of those healthier coping skills next time you are craving a beefy 5 layer from Taco Bell.
Reframe your relationship with food
We already know that food and feelings are interconnected. Let’s reframe those connections in a more positive light. When you start viewing food as fuel you can completely shift the way you look at your food choices. Instead of attaching strong connections between sweets or junk food and stress relief, think of food as natural fuel to supply your body with the energy needed to tackle your stress head on. Chocolates and candies create illusionary relationships to feeling better or less stressed. Healthier food choices actually make your body feel better, which in turn improves our mental and emotional health too.
*Disclaimer: I’m not saying that eating a bunch of brussel sprouts is going to instantly make you feel less stressed. I am saying that relying on an attachment to unhealthy food choices for stress relief can perpetuate a vicious, unhealthy cycle. Reframe your relationship with food by viewing food as the fuel you need in order to utilize and participate in those healthy, actual stress relieving activities.
Be honest about the source of your stress
Stress relievers are essential and everyone needs to have a large toolbox full of healthy coping skills. Ultimately, however, to really work through our stress we have to recognize and identify the source of our stressors. Long-term stress relief requires an examination of the root cause of stress. Chances are that the car in front of you, driving the speed limit, isn’t your source of stress. It is more likely that your time management skills might need some fine tuning so that you can leave early enough to not worry so much about the traffic. (more heads nod in agreement) Stress is everywhere in our daily lives. Take some time to turn inward and reflect on what causes you the most stress. Starting at the source of that stress will ultimately improve your chances of effectively managing that stress in healthy, adaptive ways.
Avoiding your stress and putting it off until later will only increase your stress. Everyone needs to learn how to manage their stress before serious mental or physical illness occur. If you need help getting your stress under control, come on in and see me! I’ll be sure to remove the candy bowl from the lobby before your first session to reduce any temptation 🙂