“Under stress, we all regress”. The Emotional Eating Cycle - Do you eat when you are stressed?*

Friday, 10 July 2020, By Alicia Jovcevski

"Under stress, we all regress"
The Emotional Eating Cycle - Do you eat when you are stressed?

Stressful conditions can activate trauma triggers - sometimes causing us to fall back into our old coping mechanisms of overeating/binge eating, over exerting ourselves or feeling like exercise is simply just too hard.

All that time you have spent working on yourself regulating your emotions and changing those unhealthy habits that don't seem to serve you, when you are triggered or under stress, it can all go out the window. Suddenly when you're triggered, certain types of emotions may reignite old patterns of behaviour and that is a very normal response to a highly stressful situation. A prime and very topical example right now would be Covid19!

When you're stressed out, instilling calm can be very difficult.

Occasionally using food as a pick-me-up, a reward, or to celebrate isn't a bad thing. But when eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism-i.e when your first impulse is to stuff your face with food when you are feeling upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored-you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the real feeling or problem is never addressed.

Emotional hunger cannot be filled with food. Eating may feel good at the time, but the underlying feelings that triggered the eating are still there. And quite often you feel worse than you did before, because of the unnecessary calories you've just consumed. It then can spiral into you beating yourself up for messing up and not practicing more willpower.

Common behaviours under stress include not opening up to someone with how you're actually feeling and expressing what's bothering you (the need for connection, expression and resolution) or pulling yourself away from the usual things that bring you comfort and solace like training and eating nutrition dense foods.
In times of stress exercising under a quite literal heavy load or the effort of cooking nutritious food can feel like an added stress or "extra things to do".

These examples are the most common and are simply because it's what we each learned to do… until we learned a healthier way to cope!
You can learn healthier ways to deal with your emotions, avoid triggers, conquer cravings, and finally put a stop to years of emotional eating.

Cues to look out for when emotional eating:

  • Emotional hunger comes on suddenly.
    It hits you in an instant and feels overwhelming and urgent.
    Physical hunger, on the other hand, comes on more gradually.
  • Emotional hunger craves specific comfort foods.
    Typically you will crave junk food or sugary snacks that provide an instant rush.
    You feel like you need chocolate or ice cream or pizza, and nothing else will do.
  • Emotional hunger often leads to mindless eating.
    Before you know it, you've eaten a whole packet of chips, an entire tub of ice cream or a whole block of chocolate without really paying attention or enjoying it.
  • Emotional hunger isn't satisfied once you're full.
    You keep wanting more and more, often eating until you're uncomfortably full.
  • Emotional hunger often leads to regret, guilt, or shame.
    If you feel guilty after you eat, it's likely because you know deep down that you're not eating for nutritional reasons.

So how do you get back to that healthy place?

Setbacks don't mean failure! We cannot maintain being on-point all of the time.
Once you're able to attune to yourself and self-soothe (using those healthy habits by eating better again and getting back into your healthy workout routine), your stronger, wiser self will likely return. And when you get back to a good place and are feeling more balanced everything around you will restore its clarity again too.

The first step in putting a stop to emotional eating is identifying your own personal triggers. What situations, places, or feelings make you reach for the comfort of food? Most emotional eating is linked to unpleasant feelings, but it can also be triggered by positive emotions, such as rewarding yourself for achieving a goal or celebrating a holiday or happy event.

Ever notice how stress makes you hungry? It's not just in your mind. When our stress levels are high, living in a chaotic, fast-paced world, your body produces high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol triggers cravings for salty, sweet, and fried foods-foods that give you a burst of energy and pleasure but are also short-lived and very quickly digested. The more uncontrolled stress you have in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.

We need to find other ways to feed our feelings!
If you don't know how to manage your emotions in a way that doesn't involve food, you won't be able to control your eating habits. "Diets" so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn't work when emotions override the process, demanding immediate gratification with food.

In order to stop emotional eating, you have to change your habits to fulfill yourself emotionally. It's not enough to understand your triggers and cycle of emotional eating, you need alternatives to food that you can turn to for emotional fulfillment.

Healthy alternatives to emotional eating

If you're depressed, sad or lonely, call someone who always makes you feel better with their positive and warm energy.

If you're anxious, expend your nervous energy by going for a walk, doing a weight session or some cardio.

If you're exhausted, treat yourself with a hot cup of tea, take a bath, light a scented candle, or wrap yourself in a warm blanket and watch a movie in bed.

If you're bored, read a book, explore the outdoors with a bushwalk, or turn to an activity you enjoy (playing video games, light a fire in the backyard, make a photo book).

Life is always uncertain and at some point, we are all triggered in some ways -But remember to lean into the opportunities for learning and for growth.
If you can remember to take a moment to pause and reflect when you're hit with a craving, you give yourself the opportunity to make a different decision.
 
Emotional eating actually stems from feeling powerless over your emotions.

You don't feel capable of dealing with your feelings head on, so you avoid them with food. when we don't over analyse, obsess over or suppress our emotions and actually acknowledge, express and deal with them directly, the difficult feelings subside relatively quickly and lose their power to control our attention.

To do this you need to become mindful of yourself and learn how to stay connected to your authentic self and how you actually feel. This can enable you to rein in and reduce stress and repair emotional problems that often trigger emotional eating.

Support yourself with healthy lifestyle habits - Make daily exercise a priority, make time for relaxation, aim for 8 hours of sleep every night and connect with others.

Don't underestimate the importance of close relationships and social activities.
Spending time with positive people who enhance your life and mental health will help protect you from the negative effects of stress.

Alicia Jovcevski
Studio Owner

*Disclaimer: Individual results vary based on agreed goals. Click here for details.

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