By Madeleine Ortiz
Stress is a biological response that occurs from a perceived threat and it dates back to caveman times. Originally, the stress might have been caused by a lack of food or the presence of predators. Nowadays, it might be a work deadline or worry over paying our bills. Regardless of the source, explains psychologist Dr. Paul Davidson, our body’s response to stress is the same – fight or flight. And that flight or fight reaction, he says, takes a lot of energy, causing us to crave simple carbohydrates. This is what makes so many of us seek food as comfort when we’re feeling overwhelmed. But stress eating isn’t the healthiest way to cope…Dr. Davidson shares his seven best strategies for stopping stress eating below.
1. Stop stress before it starts
Dr. Davidson’s very best advice for avoiding stress eating is to avoid stress. It may sound impossible, but he promises it is possible to stop a lot of our stress before it starts. First, he says, you have to figure out where your stress is coming from. Once you identify the root cause, you can create a plan to eliminate the stressor. For example, if a traffic-heavy commute gets your stress levels rising, he recommends finding a gym or another place to exercise near your job. That way instead of sitting in heavy traffic you can commute to your workout when the roads are emptier and then head to work or home from there. If social gatherings are a source of stress, make a list of topics you feel comfortable and confident talking about – and give yourself a promised time to leave the event so you know there’s an endpoint to any discomfort you might experience. Does a hectic family schedule make it feel like you have little time for anything else? Sit down with your partner, children and other family members at the beginning of each month and create a plan of action. Eliminate activities that just won’t work logistically and stick to what will keep everyone sane. Not all stress is avoidable, Dr. Davidson admits, but doing what you can ahead of time for stress that is will have a huge impact on your health.
2. Breath deeply
Take a deep breath and notice what part of your body moves when you do. If your ribs and shoulders are moving up towards your neck, you’re not breathing in a way that’s going to help relieve stress, explains Dr. Davidson. Instead, place your hands on your belly and see if you can get your stomach to expand as you inhale. When you exhale, feel your hands return to start. Practice this diaphragm breathing until you get the hang of it and Dr. Davidson says you’ll soon start to feel calmer. “When we deep breathe like this,” he says “we stimulate our vagus nerve – the nerve that runs from our stomach to our brain.” And when that happens, our relaxation increases and the urge to eat decreases. A win-win.
Never underestimate the power of a good laugh, says Dr. Davidson. Laughter can actually short-circuit the feedback loop of stress, he explains. When we stop this cycle, we stop the side effects – like cravings for carbs and stress eating – that come with it. Try watching some funny clips on YouTube or listening to your favorite comedian on your phone. You’ll be surprised at how much relief humor can bring, even if you weren’t in the mood for joking around before you watched or listened.
Even if you are convinced that you can’t sit still long enough to meditate, Dr. Davidson urges everyone to build some “calm time” into your daily routine. Anything that slows down your breathing and amplifies your focus is going to help stop the stress response. Some things he suggests are mediation, yoga, tai chi, journaling or reading a positive affirmation. The activity itself is not as important as how it makes you feel, so find something that makes you feel calm, focused and peaceful.
5. Check in with your thoughts
Cognitive distortions happen when our brain tries to convince us imaginary things are real, Dr. Davidson explains. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thoughts or feelings about ourselves. Some examples of cognitive distortions or false thoughts include filtering out all the good things happening and only focusing on the bad things, telling yourself you’ll “never” be able to accomplish a task or always imagining the worst case scenario. When you’re feeling stressed, Dr. Davidson encourages you to check in with your thoughts and be honest with yourself about what’s real and what’s your imagination getting away from you. It takes practice, but once you learn to identify the fallacies, you can stop them from being a source of stress (and stress eating) in your life.
Physical activity is one of the quickest ways to dispel stress, and according to Dr. Davidson, it doesn’t have to be a scheduled, formal workout. “You’d be surprised by how much better just 10 jumping jacks can make you feel,” he says. Next time you feel yourself getting stressed and wanting to grab a snack, try a minute of air punches, a brisk walk around the block or office, dancing to a favorite song or anything else that gets you moving. You’ll take your mind off the stress and the craving for carbs will fade as well.
We can’t underestimate the importance of connection when it comes to quelling stress. According to Dr. Davidson, reaching out to someone you love and care about, whether it be virtually or in-person makes you feel more stable and supported. That security helps take your body out of the flight or fight response and helps you feel more in control of your emotions and food choices. Dr. Davidson also encourages physical connection when safe. A hug, hand holding or a pat on the back goes a long way in settling the body both physically and mentally. Don’t be afraid to ask for one if you need it.
Stress is a reality, but with Dr. Davidson’s tips and a little bit of practice, stress eating doesn’t have to be. Take it one day, one stressful moment at a time – and if things still feel overwhelming, find a professional like Dr. Davidson who can help develop skills for your unique situation and personality. Healthier coping is a skill you can build over time– eventually, it becomes second-nature.
To learn more about conquering habit hunger, watch this episode of My Weight Live here.
To learn more about how to cope with emotional eating, click here.
To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.
To sign up for our free online class that covers the basics of how to reach a healthier weight, click here.