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Stress Management

Using stress management as an approach to weight loss is often cited as being a viable alternative for individuals that notice themselves overeating, or eating "junk food" when stressed or suffering from anxiety.

Stress-eating is a common ailment among individuals throughout the Unites States, and it is estimated that approximately 4 out of 5 individuals consume food in excess or eat unhealthy foods as a response to stress or anxiety.

One of the main principles associated with reducing excess body weight through stress management is to reduce or eliminate the reasons associated with the root cause of the actual stress and anxiety.

This can be accomplished by either reducing or eliminating the stress (the root cause), or by finding a better approach to dealing with the stress (the effect) rather than consuming unhealthy foods or eating large quantities of food.

Why do We Stress-Eat?

Individuals consume food when experiencing stress for a variety of reasons. One of the most common and medically-verified reasons is that the process of consuming food releases chemicals called endorphins and serotonin.

These "feel good" chemicals not only dull pain, but can distract attention away from whatever emotional problem the individual is facing and refocus it on familiar foods that bring satisfaction to the individual. While stress-eating can offer real relief from stress and anxiety, the effects that it places on the body and mind can be extremely detrimental to the individual's health and mental well-being.

An additional psychological reason for stress eating is one that has been ingrained in individuals since they were children. Virtually everyone recalls an instance where, as a child, they were rewarded with food for performing something well. Most likely, the food was in the form of candy or some other kind of unhealthy, highly-processed food. Very few parents have the foresight to reward their children with healthy foods, or perhaps a new piece of exercise equipment (a football, skateboard, soccer ball, etc.).

However, parents are not entirely to blame as they were probably rewarded in the same fashion when they were a child. In all likelihood, your parents were raised to believe that food was a form of reward, and hence a way to feel good.

The reward system of individuals being given food when they perform an act that is considered positive shapes the individual's mindset as they age. Without realizing it, most individuals continue to reward themselves with food, and most societies support and encourage the same practice as well.

For instance, on Valentine's Day, individuals send chocolates to their loved ones as an act of kindness or to show that they care. On Christmas, children that have been good throughout the year are rewarded with unhealthy, highly-processed foods in their stockings. On an individual's birthday, they are rewarded with a cake. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional piece of candy or cake, using food as a psychological reward can become detrimental to the individual's overall lifestyle, health and mental stability.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety-Related Eating

    recognizing causes of stress
  1. Hunger Appears Quite Suddenly: Normal hunger cravings appear slowly as an indicator that the body requires additional fuel. Emotionally-triggered hunger will appear quite suddenly and with sharp pains. Learn to recognize the difference between normal hunger and stress-related hunger and act accordingly. Try drinking a glass of water when the abrupt cravings appear and evaluate whether there is a difference between the two forms of hunger.

  2. Stress Cravings are Typically Focused on Specific Foods: For example, if an individual is craving chocolate cake rather than wholesome foods, they may be experiencing hunger due to stress. When events like this occur, consider eating a healthy food to satisfy your craving instead of giving in to a poor food choice.

  3. The Hunger Cravings Feel Like They Need to be Addressed Immediately: This type of stress eating may come in the form of jumping out of bed to run down to the closest fast food restaurant or rifling through the cupboards trying to find that perfect, indulgent snack. Whatever form the hunger cravings take, hunger that seems urgent may be an indicator of emotional eating. Try focusing on other things when an urgent hunger craving strikes.

  4. Consuming Food While You Cook: If an individual cannot wait until they have finished cooking to eat, they may be displaying symptoms of emotional eating. Tasting food as the meal is being prepared is fine, but eating another meal while waiting for one to cook is a possible sign of stress-eating. Remember that waiting until your meal is completely prepared can make the meal that much more enjoyable.

  5. Certain Emotions Trigger Hunger: If an individual is always hungry when they are happy, sad or stressed, they most likely have a stress-eating problem. Finding additional ways to deal with their emotions instead of turning to food is a healthy and productive alternative. For instance, happiness can be rewarded with a new piece of exercise equipment or a book, while sadness can be addressed by writing about your feelings or speaking to a close friend or family member. Stress can be managed through yoga and meditation.

  6. Consuming Food in a State of Unawareness or Forgetfulness: This occurs when an individual sits down to eat some potato chips and suddenly finds that the bag is empty without realizing that they ate so much in one sitting. This type of eating is referred to as "unconscious eating," and is typically associated with emotional eating disorders.

  7. Over-Consumption and Continual Eating, Even When Full: Individuals that find themselves eating beyond the point of being full are no longer eating to fulfill their body's nutritional requirements. In many cases, the individual is simply eating to manage their stress. Instead, individuals should try to focus on when they are actually full, and stop eating at that point. Eating more slowly can assist in helping individuals recognize the sensation of fullness and minimize further consumption of food.

  8. The Stomach is Not the Only Thing Growling: If an individual craves a specific food through obsession in their mind or watering in their mouth (without the food being present), they may be suffering from emotional eating (usually stress-related). Try to limit eating to only when the stomach signals that it's time to do so.

  9. Eating can Result from Guilt: Whether or not an individual eats to reduce stress, feeling guilty after eating is a sign of an emotional mental condition (except if an individual is dieting and consumed a food that is outside their dietary plan). Eating should be a satisfying endeavor and any guilt experienced after eating is a clear indicator of a problem. In this instance, seeing a physician or psychiatrist may be necessary.

Successfully Handling and Dealing with Stress

Below are some useful tips and approaches to handling stress in a healthy fashion and without turning to food:

  • Forget about problems that are outside of your realm of control.

  • Prepare thoroughly for stressful situations and follow your pre-defined plan. While you may not get that new job or do well at an audition, realize that your thoroughness and preparedness will facilitate your next attempt.

  • Do not view changing situations as dangerous or negative events. Instead, view them as a new and exciting challenge.

  • Resolve conflicts with your peers constructively and do not let them stew too long.

  • Make social interactions a regular activity. Visit an old friend or make plans with a new one.

  • Do not make your goals too aggressive or unrealistic.

  • Participate regularly in some form of exercise. By doing so, you will release the same chemicals (endorphins and serotonin) that are released after emotional eating. Endorphins are only released during rigorous physical activity, such as heavy weight lifting or sprinting.

  • Make sure that you sleep at least 7 or 8 hours every night.

  • Incorporate meditation and/or yoga into your daily lifestyle.

  • Increase the amount of time that you spend doing something that you enjoy. Watch a movie, spend more time with your friends, or spend more time with your favorite hobby.

  • Find a new hobby, even if it isn't directly related to physical fitness. Good examples include woodworking, sewing, knitting, creative writing or volunteering at a local community center.

yoga pose

Stress-eating is a real condition that needs to be taken seriously. In fact, millions of individuals suffer from stress-eating, and with the typical lifestyle continuing to become more and more hectic, this condition is only become more common. The first step in addressing this condition is to recognize that it exists and that you may exhibit symptoms associated with stress-eating.

Learning to relax, clear your thoughts and center your mind and overall lifestyle are the keys to overcoming this condition. Healthy and productive approaches to conquering this condition include strength training, cardiovascular activities, meditation, yoga, Pilates, and taking up a new hobby.

This being said, always evaluate your current lifestyle and look for areas where items of continual stress can be eliminated.