Guest Post by Eliza Kingsford – MA, LPC, NCC
Let me take a wild guess… you’re struggling with a little more stress than usual right now.
As a result, you might also be fighting “stress eating” tendencies. Maybe you’re reaching for the potato chips more than you normally do, or maybe you’ve been eating dessert after every meal instead of a couple times a week.
Perhaps your jeans (or more likely sweatpants) are starting to fit tighter and you’re suddenly thinking about the popularized “COVID-15”. You might be wondering why you seem to be turning to food in a way you don’t normally.
There’s good news and bad news in the explanation for why this is happening. First, I’ll address the science behind your food cravings (that’s the slightly bad news). Next, I’ll tell you how you can easily and effectively manage this sudden preoccupation with food – good news!
There are many reasons why your brain is triggering you to eat more than you normally would. In fact, I filmed an entire free webinar on all the reasons.
But for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on 3 of the big reasons: The stress response, the prefrontal cortex and the threat response.
Why Am I Stress Eating?
Stress Eating Cause 1: The Stress Response
There is just no way around it right now, our brains are triggered into the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) or “fight or flight” response.
This is the most primitive part of your brain that is designed to quickly pick up on messages of danger so that it can activate all of the systems in your body to respond to the danger. When our SNS is activated, other systems in the body get deactivated or less responsive so that you have all the resources you need to address the danger.
But how does this relate to food?
To put it simply, when your SNS is activated, what it wants is sugar and processed foods because these foods easily convert to glucose which can be used immediately for energy.
Your brain is going to seek out foods that will give it this quick energy because it thinks you might need it to run from danger. What your brain doesn’t know is that you’re not really in physical danger, and you don’t need any extra energy to sit on your couch. The reptilian part of the brain that is responsible for your SNS is not sophisticated enough to tell if the so-called danger requires extra calories/glucose. Thus, your brain wants all the sugar and processed foods.
Stress Eating Cause 2: The Prefrontal Cortex
During times of stress, your prefrontal cortex (PFC) also doesn’t work as efficiently as usual.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for things like impulse control, delayed gratification, foreseeing and weighing the possible consequences of behavior, forming strategies, and planning and modulating intense emotions.
But when the SNS is switched on, your prefrontal cortex is no longer in the driver’s seat.
You no longer have access to that governing PFC that allows you to walk by a donut shop and say, “those smell amazing, but I think I’ll pass.” As a result, you’re more likely to make an impulsive nutritional choice and walk out of that donut shop with a steamy box (or two).
Stress Eating Cause 3: The Threat Response
In the current environment, your threat response system (TRS) is also going to be turned on.
Research tells us that when the brain senses danger and the TRS is activated, certain foods act to dampen the TRS which can temporarily make us feel better.
What are the foods that dampen the TRS? Sugar and fatty foods. Like the aforementioned donuts, as well as cookies, cakes, chips, fried foods, pizza, nachos and the like.
These foods act like a “comfort” to your brain (hence the term ‘comfort food’). And they do tend to temporarily make you feel better. The problem is that the feeling is short-lived and you end up feeling worse after you’ve consumed the junk food you were craving – physically and mentally.
How to Stop Stress Eating Today
OK, enough of the bad news!
I like to be armed with knowledge. If you are anything like me, you feel a little better knowing what is going on behind the scenes. Knowledge helps us feel motivated to pay more attention to habits and behaviors.
The good news is that, with a little bit of effort, you can switch your brain back into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) or “rest and digest” mode.
When we do that, other systems can come back online and we can make decisions, once again, that we know better serve us in the long-run.
The key is not to fight your brain, but to get your brain (and nervous system) back to a state of optimal functioning that supports you and your health.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to get the brain back into rest and digest mode.
Got the Munchies? Take a Breath
Diaphragmatic, or belly breathing, is one of the easiest ways to activate the PNS and reduce the stress response. It can also stabilize blood pressure and heartbeat. Better yet, it’s simple, fast, and easy.
As soon as you find yourself with a craving, simply stop and take a few breaths:
- Sit or lay comfortably with your back straight.
- Place one hand over your stomach, just below the ribcage, and your other hand over your chest.
- Inhale deeply for 3-8 seconds through the nostrils, directing all air to your belly. Only your stomach should lift or expand, not your chest.
- Breathe out through your mouth for 3-8 seconds.
- Repeat 3-10 times.
Nothing Beats a Little Bit of ‘Vitamin N’ for Stress
Just 20 minutes of exposure to nature has been shown to significantly lower stress hormone levels.
Get out in nature at least once a day if you can. Whenever you’re feeling snacky, just step outside or take a short walk and your mind will forget all about the food.
If You’re Reaching for the Cookies, Try Meditation
If the very word ‘meditation’ causes you to roll your eyes, just stay with me for a second.
There is an ever-growing body of research that points to meditation being one of the most effective ways we can get ourselves out of stress mode and into a healthier physical state of being.
You don’t have to sit crossed legged on a pillow for two hours in order to reap the benefits of meditation. As little as a few minutes of meditation can impact your brain in an effective way.
Insight Timer is my favorite app for playing with meditation. There are many other apps that help ease you into it, but I love this one because you can create your own experience by adjusting the timer/sounds, you can follow along with a guided meditation or you can simply listen to meditative music. All in one app.
Move Your Body to Reduce Food Cravings
Studies show that regular exercise helps reduce food cravings for up to a couple of hours even after you’ve finished exercising. It’s a bit of a double-whammy with exercise; it can help you reduce food cravings AND reduce your stress level with even short bouts of movement.
To Quit Stress Eating You Must Reduce Stress, Not Food
You may notice that none of these suggestions have anything to do with food. That’s because our first line of defense is to address the CAUSE of our food cravings, and that is the body’s stress response!
Most people make the mistake of immediately restricting their food intake without addressing the cause. This is like putting a Band-Aid on a flesh wound. It may stop the bleeding temporarily, but wouldn’t you rather heal the underlying issue and not have to just keep changing the Band-Aid?
If you’d like to hear the full story of your brain’s reaction to stressful times and get the full scope of coping skills you can utilize, click here for access to a free webinar. I also invite you to download a free stress response toolkit I created specifically for dealing with this pandemic.
Eliza Kingsford is a licensed psychotherapist, mind-body practitioner and behavior change specialist who helps clients struggling with food addiction, body image and emotional eating. Eliza’s work has been featured on Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, NBC Health, CNN Health, Health Magazine, Shape Magazine, MindBodyGreen and many more. She’s the author of Brain-Powered Weight Loss and has sat on scientific advisory boards with the leading researchers in the field of food addiction obesity and weight management. Eliza is turning the diet industry on its head by combining the science of nutrition with the psychology of eating to create lasting results for her clients.