Katharyn knew she was eating because of stress, but she wasn’t able to stop herself from going through her cabinets and eating one thing after another until she was sick to her stomach. She is not alone. Most adults are overeating at night, and the primary reason is stress. Are you one of them?
Stress is now such a big part of everyone’s life, and the more we put up with, the less we notice how stressed we are. As a result, you might not even realize that what is driving you to overeat, crave sweets and carbohydrates, or turn to food when you aren’t even hungry is chronic stress. You may be under yet another tight deadline, feeling overwhelmed, dealing with negative people, making do with less, anxious or concerned about things outside your control, or trying to do too much each day. And that is for starters. Extreme levels of stress are no longer determined by whether there are major upheavals in your life, but by the cumulating daily stressors that add up without being defused.
Once Katharyn was able to review what was happening earlier in the day from a neutral perspective, she could see very clearly the causes of her stress and that she felt deserving of a reward when she got home. That need to be rewarded for putting up with the stress is often how the overeating starts. It is easy to justify pacifying yourself with food when you have been put upon or had to tolerate an unpleasant situation. And once the eating starts, the food becomes a way to avoid thinking about what happened and to further repress the emotions of the day. Very often stress eating becomes emotional eating, where food becomes the coping mechanism and a way to avoid dealing with how the stress makes you feel or your unmet needs.
There are 5 simple steps to stop stress eating, which Katharyn used to stop bingeing when she got home after a long and often challenging day.
1. Become Aware of When You Do Stress Eating
One of the things Katharyn realized is she wasn’t fully aware of what or how much she was eating on the nights she snacked until she couldn’t eat any more. She couldn’t even remember what she had eaten, if she had enjoyed any of it, or when she started to feel full. It was a blur and a way to zone out and forget her problems.
If you aren’t aware of what you are doing at the time you are doing it, you have no ability to stop or make a different choice. Instead you are on autopilot and out of control. So the first step is to actually notice you are eating unhealthy foods, too much food, and getting full. Once you can really see this, you can also start to look at what happened during the day, which is driving you to eat this way. And you can start to notice how you feel physically after a night of eating poorly.
2. Don’t Judge Yourself
The point of gaining more awareness is not to harshly judge yourself. When you feel judged, you will actually eat more to push down those feelings. There are good reasons for why you are stress eating, and the only way to really identify and understand those reasons is to be objective and have some compassion for yourself. By standing back and being a neutral observer, you are more willing to get curious and start to see what triggers you to eat.
3. Observe Your Eating Patterns
With that curiosity, you can begin to see your patterns. You will begin to notice when you eat because you feel stressed, and if you pick different types of foods or beverages for different types of stressful events. Maybe you turn to soda at work when you are irritated or frustrated, but you turn to sugary foods when you feel let down or unable to do as you planned. Maybe you automatically want a drink after work to deal with your anger or frustration, or maybe you get home and binge out of habit and exhaustion.
4. Get Specific about What Triggers Your Choices
The more you observe without judgment, the more you can see exactly what is triggering you to turn to food or a beverage. It may not always be because of stress. There are 8 possible reasons for being out of control with food and drinking, and stress can be a factor but not always the full cause. For example, one common reason for overeating or making unhealthy choices is being mindless, and stress can keep your mind so busy that you don’t pay any attention to what you are eating or drinking until you have overdone it. Another reason is having unconscious beliefs, like you deserve a reward for working hard or having to put up with things. When you feel stressed, you may also be eating or drinking something unhealthy to reward yourself. A third common reason is distracting yourself from how you feel by eating or drinking something, which is classic emotional eating.
When you stop to really see what you are thinking or feeling, you can start to see what is actually triggering your food or drink choices, and you can also begin to notice if those choices leave you feeling all that great after you have had them. Most likely, you feel worse not better. You also probably haven’t solved the real issues that are making you feel stressed.
5. Create Strategies to Deal with the Stress Differently
Now that you are more aware of all the different things that are driving your choices, you can start to think of strategies to reduce the stress and get your needs met without using food or beverages as the crutch.
Katharyn realized that she needed to take breaks during the day, so she could get some down time and make sure she got balanced snacks and meals to boost her energy levels. She also noticed that if she remained calm when things were hectic, instead of snapping at people when they snapped at her, that everything seemed easier to manage. And she could see that a better reward when she got home was a cup of tea and playtime with her dogs, followed by a nice dinner and the promise of some time to read. When she did these things, she reduced the stress at work and at home, and she got more sleep and felt better able to handle whatever she had to deal with in her day. As a result, she no longer binged when she got home.