We’ve all been there… kids screaming, deadlines looming at work, angry significant other, endless to-do list, destroyed house, and you feel completely overwhelmed, hopeless, and anxious. Then, before you know it, you’ve eaten half a bag of chips, a box of cookies, a tub of ice cream, and whatever else happens to be around. You’re left with a stomach ache, and worse yet, that crushing guilt of wondering what the heck just happened and feeling like you failed.
Stress eating is incredibly common, and according to a survey by the American Psychology Association, 38% of adults say they have over eaten as a way to manage stress in the last month. Of those, half said they engage in stress eating at least weekly. Studies have also found that participants eat more high sugar foods when stressed compared to when not stressed, and that high-fat/high-sugar foods have a more harmful effect on women who are chronically stressed than on those who report they experience lower stress.
Aside from its impact on your weight, eating a massive number of calories at a time spikes your blood sugar, which, when done on a regular basis, is considered a major risk factor for type II diabetes. In addition, little eyes are on you and are learning behaviors. When mommy gets mad, does she dive into a bag of cookies? Shove some chocolate in her mouth? When I work with clients to help them understand their unhealthy eating habits, I hear, “Well, that’s how I grew up,” “My mom used to…,” “I think that’s how my parents handled…,” etc., all the time.
In other words, there are a whole host of reasons why stress eating is more than just a “bad habit,” and why it’s time to get a handle on it.
The great news? You are the captain of your ship! Stress plays a huge role in keeping us at a healthy weight, and it’s critical that we do everything we can to
- alleviate chronic stress in our lives,
- have strategies for coping with stress which do not involve food, and
- practice re-focusing and getting back to healthy habits quickly when we do fall off the wagon.
PART ONE: Understanding Chronic Stress
For most of us, coming up with a list of chronic stressors is easy: health issues, death of a loved one, marital disruption/separation, parenting, demands on our time, our jobs, etc. We do go through periods of acute stress — specific and temporary situations which put us under stress. However, more and more we are also finding chronic stress being caused not only by circumstantial issues but also by internal issues. While there aren’t always things we can do to alleviate circumstantial (or acute) stressors, we CAN work to improve our internal stressors and to get ourselves OUT of a chronic stress cycle.
Below is a list of five traits and habits which tend to cause high levels of ongoing (or chronic) stress and some tips for getting yourself on the path to healthier ways of thinking.
1. Internal Critic: When we find fault regardless of the circumstances or reality of a situation.
Talk Back: Seek out supportive friends, or ask a trusted friend or family member for a reality check when your inner critic pipes up. Treat yourself as you would your best friend — if she were going through what you’re going through, what would you say to her? Chances are you’d be a lot more kind and understanding than you are to yourself; practice using that voice and treating yourself with love and care. Responding to every critical thought with a positive one is also a great habit to cultivate. When you do mess up, take responsibility, find a way to learn from the situation, and then MOVE ON.
2. Negative or Caustic Relationships: Harmful, unfulfilling, obligatory, unbalanced, and non-validating relationships invite and cause stress in our lives. When these relationships are ongoing, they become a source of chronic stress.
Talk Back: Remind yourself that “you become your friends.” Studies show that we become more like the people we surround ourselves with. People even order healthier meals at restaurants when those around them do (the reverse is true as well — yikes)! So choose your friends wisely; the more healthy, active, fit friends who love kale you have, the more you will start to be like them. (Fun fact: Your social media friends also affect your happiness and motivation! A recent study showed that those who had primarily positive messages in their social media outlets also had a more positive mental outlook on life, so find those positive sources [like Des Moines Mom Blog!] and follow away!)
3. Self-Sabotage: Knowing what you “should or need” to do, but choosing to do something less productive instead.
Talk Back: Combat this source of stress head-on and get moving! Many people think rest breeds motivation, as in, “I’m tired, so I’ll just sit on the couch for ten minutes, and then I’ll have the energy to go workout.” In reality, MOTion breeds MOTivation. Next time you’re tempted to let yourself get distracted, or you find yourself thinking that you’ll “rest, watch TV, chill out, etc., and THEN do x, y, or z,” commit to doing what you need to do for just 15 minutes, NOW. Whether it’s cleaning, studying, organizing, prepping dinner, having a hard conversation, working on a project, exercising, etc. Chances are that you’ll be on such a roll after 15 minutes that you’ll keep going. (Take it one step further: Getting to the root of WHY you sabotage yourself is also key to overcoming this harmful behavior — especially if success or self-celebration makes you uncomfortable.)
4. Indecisiveness: Wanting everything all at once, or on the other hand, not wanting any of the options available to you, leaves you in the same place — spinning your wheels, going over the same things in your head over and over, and ultimately being unable to move FORWARD with your life.
Talk Back: Time to move — in ANY direction. Give yourself permission to fail. Choosing a direction (any direction) and moving forward is better than just spinning your wheels. Remind yourself that nothing is absolute, so if at some point you decide you want to make a different choice, you can always switch paths. You are the captain of your ship and the director of your life! “Failing” (in all its forms) is part of life and happens to even the most successful people. The important thing is that you get back up and try something else.
5. Victimization: Occurs when we perceive issues which WE are creating to be those being imposed on us by others. It robs us of our agency and can put us in a “helpless” state of mind instead of one of action.
Talk Back: Deep breath — time to remind yourself that in all things YOU HAVE A CHOICE. Even in a situation where a choice is being made “for” you, or you feel like you don’t have a “good” option, you have the choice of how you will respond. Will you make the best of the situation? Will you hold on to your agency and decide how to make this new situation work for you? Will you look for a silver lining, a lesson to be learned, and keep moving forward instead of getting stuck in negativity? These are all practiced skills (and part of resiliency, which studies show is possibly one of the “best” traits you can teach your children, so bonus points for modeling this behavior!).
Spend some time examining these sources of chronic stress, and then choose to tackle them one by one. Remember it takes about two weeks to make a change permanent, so start implementing these new ways of thinking into your daily life, and keep it up for two weeks for a healthier, less stressed you!
While most of us can alleviate and minimize the CHRONIC stress in our lives, most of us will continue to have some stressors on a day to day basis. So, in addition to minimizing stress, we need to learn, develop, practice, and model healthier responses to the stress in our lives.
PART TWO: Responding to Stress
Make a list of things you can do when you are feeling stressed which do not center around eating or food. Some people find it helpful to create individual strategies for different types of stress/emotional eating. For example, many people have a different pattern for “tired” eating than they do for “I hate my boss” eating. To help you figure out the difference, try keeping a “stress journal” for a week. Every time you find yourself feeling anxious, hopeless, short of breath, angry, or the other hallmarks of stress, try to to identify WHY, and jot that down (along with your overall stress level 1-10). Don’t worry about it being coherent, cohesive, or making sense — just jot down whatever comes to mind. At the end of the week review your notes and look for
- common themes/potential sources of chronic stress and
- sources of INTENSE stress (those which got a 7 or higher).
Move forward by creating action plans for how to deal with both your “common themes” and “intense sources” of stress. For example, when your kids are really getting to you, can you stock a special box full of new toys and let them each choose one? Or have them retreat to another room for 20 minutes of “quiet time”? Or take 20 minutes to yourself once you get reinforcements? Once you have your list(s), make sure you see them often! Post them on your refrigerator, at your desk, on your bathroom mirror, or other central location.
(Note: This is a GREAT opportunity for you and your partner [or other support system] to grow closer together. Just as people have different “love languages,” people have different ways of responding to stress. Having an open, supportive, and honest conversation with your partner about the things which cause you stress, how he or she can support you, and what your goals are for handling them better can help the two of you feel closer. Relationship win!)
PART THREE: Action Plan for “Falling Off the Wagon”
In your healthy eating and weight loss journey you are going to hit bumps in the road, times of waning enthusiasm, and times when you just plain mess up. First off, you need to be comfortable with this reality. If just reading that sentence makes you nervous, start there. Why? Would a setback mean you “failed,” that you’ll “never lose weight,” or that you’re not “good enough to be skinny/healthy/fit”? Use the above strategies to combat this negative thinking. Is it helping you achieve your goals? Is it helping or hurting you? What would you say if a friend told you she was having these thoughts?
Then, MAKE A PLAN! Mistakes are mistakes — they happen, and it’s fine. The only way they signal a “failure” is if you allow one mistake (or heck, a few days filled with mistakes) to spiral into a total and complete breakdown of your healthy habits. The good news is women who have a plan on how to handle lapses in working out and/or healthy eating lose more weight than those with no plan, and they say that a hiccup here or there affects them less negatively than those who “never” expect to have a setback. So let’s plan, plan away!
FIRST, set some limits. How much is too much? Many women weigh themselves weekly to keep tabs on their progress. So how many pounds triggers your intervention with yourself? My suggestion is five to seven pounds. It is fairly normal for a heavily-processed meal + no working out for a weekend + a couple drinks + your period starting to make your weight fluctuate three to four pounds. Any more than that and it’s time to face the music, friend — you’ve put on a pound or two.
What other limits do you have? I absolutely, positively refuse to eat like “crap” two days in a row. Ever. I would rather get a salad from Wendy’s (I’m serious). That works for me, because if yesterday was crazy and things went sideways and I ate all the gluten, or pizza, or Chinese, or whatever that means, the next day is an OPPORTUNITY to get things back on track and eat great.
Other “rules” of mine (and my clients) include the following:
Always choose produce first whenever possible.
So I don’t care how much I want that bowl of pasta, I ALWAYS eat a big bowl of veggies first. Same with parties — I hit that veggie try hard before I reach for anything else. Legitimately hungry at night and really, really want cereal? Going to go ahead and have a salad or three cuties or whatever first, then decide if I still need whatever I was craving.
You can eat OR drink and be merry.
I’m super serious that there is no quicker way to undo a week’s worth of hard work than a few beers and some cheesy fries. EVERYTHING you eat when you’re drinking gets stored directly as fat on your <insert your most challenging part here>. EVERYTHING. You absolutely cannot live like a frat boy and eat the greasy things while putting down some drinks. Those days are done. You are not that girl.
This is maybe the rule that took the longest to really come together, but I promise, everyone has the ability to make this one work. “Don’t pretend” means you have to be HONEST with yourself. If you’re stress eating, be aware of it.
- If you’re probably dehydrated but are eating all the food instead, be aware of it.
- If you KNOW you’re eating because you’re so freaking upset with your mom/sister/husband/kids/world/whatever but you’re doing it anyway, own it.
- If you have unhealthy food habits or “traditions,” do not mindlessly consume calories.
- If you know you will eat allllllll the snacks, but you keep buying the snacks anyway, have the hard conversations with yourself.
DON’T PRETEND that your choices don’t matter, or that you “have” to eat x, y or z, or that it will be “fine,” or that you “worked out, so it’s fine.” Don’t. Pretend. Own your body, your choices, and your decisions. YOU ARE IN CONTROL. Always.
Be excited to own the new you. EXCITED. Focus on the positive. You are not a woman who is plagued by cravings to the totally toxic foods you used to eat. You are free now. You are choosing to take pride in your health and who you are and to nourish yourself with healthy food. That is AWESOME! It’s easy to get hung up in the “but I can’t eat…” or “Ugh… I just want a…,” but really, I promise you, it’s not worth it. Look around you. LOOK. Do you want to look like “most” people look? Feel how “most” people feel? Or do you want to be happier? More energized? Vibrantly embracing life? Free of health issues which prematurely end lives every day? At some point, you have to pick a side. You can eat, drink, and pretend with the majority of our country, or you can make a change….