Stress-eating: Good stress vs. bad stress and how to cope

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Stress eating, meaning eating in an unconscious fashion – during times of stress, particularly of fatty or sugary foods. This eating will happen regardless of a need for food – and usually end in a state of shame and powerlessness. Almost like you can’t stop, or almost like you don’t notice – like you are outside yourself or unconscious. There’s a similar thing called emotional eating – and this is when you eat during times of upset. Similar results. You eat way too much, and then go into a shame spiral. Both habits often set up the need to do what they call “controlled eating” which is basically someone that tries to diet and eat less because of how they have been overeating in the in-between times. The catch-22 is that overall people who stress eat and then control eat consume the same amount of calories as those who don’t control eat – but instead it’s in the form of a rollercoaster of dieting then binging then dieting.

A lot of people confuse the stress-eating habit for “not good at dieting” or “don’t care about my body enough to not eat crappy food.” Especially when you think you’re on a roll and taking care of yourself, only to fall into the loop on a constant basis and undo all the progress you’ve had. This feeling of bewilderment and lack of control around food can make you suffer intensely. It can make you internalize the shame, intensifying the loop. It can lead to depression, more stress, more dieting, and a false concept of your relationship to food. Even though you don’t LIKE the foods or the feeling you have after eating them, necessarily, “I’m just junk-food obsessed and can’t motivate myself enough to exercise.” But that is the RESULT of the habit loop – a rationalization of it. That’s you just saying, “Well, this is just me. It’s who I am because look at my life and my powerlessness.” HOWEVER, that is false. This is not YOU, it’s an emotional/chemical sensitivity that creates a chemical imbalance – and one that self-perpetuates. A negative loop that grows stronger with each repetition – and the effect it manifests is similar to a heroin addiction.

As with all things that trap and keep you mystified – I want to start with some understanding so you can separate YOU from the symptoms you are suffering. You – when balanced – can easily stop eating when you’re full. The processes at play are powerful and chemical.

The Why

This is not about the food or the enjoyment of the food, it’s about the chemicals induced by the food. It’s actually something your brain is doing to protect you from stress – an attempt to soothe the stress hormone – cortisol, when there’s a lot of it being released for a dangerous length of time. Whether or not you suffer from stress-eating or emotional eating is dictated by your particular coping abilities within your environment. Your body has discovered an effective way of coping with a harmful and chronic situation. That solution unfortunately, is stress-eating. The effect is relief – it’s a feeling that is just like taking drugs. So you are a drug addict in many ways, and you must look at this situation from a similar perspective. If you’re struggling – I don’t blame you! This soothing habit creates an extremely powerful chemical dependence in the brain and body – because it effectively gives you relief from the stress chemicals.

Think of stress like a giant fire drill in the body. There are two key players in your stress response. One is called the HPA-axis. One is called SAM, or sympathetic-adreno-medullary system. The HPA-axis takes a bit longer than SAM – but they both have the same goal: help the body deal with the crisis at hand. SAM is like the “bro” of the two – giving you a burst of testosterone and adrenaline right away. Together, they get you the most capable of fighting off the threat. However, if you are in a state of threat chronically, your tissues cannot handle it. The stress-response activation can wreak havoc on your body, eventually even degrading your gene code.

One very important difference in the damage has to do with how the HPA-axis and SAM receive that call: is it a call from an entire town screaming bloody murder? Or is it an adorable kitten that won’t come down from a tree? In other words, how big the stress response depends on the way you feel about the stress itself. Certain responses to stress won’t sound the same amount of alarm – and there are two significant key factors in the kind of stress – it’s sometimes referred to as “threat stress” vs. “challenge stress.” Challenge Stress meaning, you experience stress as a challenge, but you are not experiencing it as a threat to your person – Threat Stress meaning, a threat to self-image: something you feel unable to handle that will hurt you socially or that you perceive as a personal failure. The way they tested this fact was done with lab rats – and they are cute! And I really wish I didn’t see this study. Anyhow, the key factors that effect how you react to the stress lie in these factors: the predictability of the stress (which is dictated by your genetics, your past experiences) and the environment you are reacting to (its controllability: type of stress, frequency, intensity and duration). Both of these dictate how you will COPE with stress. A lot of the way we react to stress is just a habit: regardless of how major that stressor is, you could become extremely sensitive to it or be overwhelmed but totally handling it. In a nutshell:

Threat Stress: Includes fear. A feeling that we cannot cope with the stressor. When the “threat stress”  includes public embarrassment or social failure it’s an even bigger response, physiologically.

Challenge Stress: Includes a feeling that our stressor is controllable – that we are capable of dealing, and that it’s a demanding BUT not fear-inducing situation.

If you experience your stress as threat, where you are fearful, or emotionally distressed, you are more likely a stress-eater than if you experience your stress as a challenge. Cortisol stimulates hunger and feeding- adrenaline is part of the fight/flight response which shuts down digestion. Threat stress stimulates eating more than challenge stress. Sam, the agro dude is activated by challenge stress. Hence the reason most don’t overeat from this kind of stress. Challenge stress types eat less, on average.

The way you experience stress has a lot to do with your genetics, your life experiences and how you cope based on those factors. If you were shy as a kid and you went through something super scary and traumatic at unpredictable times, this would exacerbate your stress sensitivity. You might also be more effected by the food stimuli of your environment – maybe because you’re dieting or image-conscious, and you are not inclined to self-sooth in another fashion. You’re also biologically more sensitive to the food soother – maybe you’re more vulnerable to the opinions of others, like you are especially delicate or fearful of disappointing others. Or maybe you’re just type-A and feel a heightened need to control everything in your environment – even when that’s just an illusion.

So this is actually a healthy process gone wrong. Your brain is trying to protect from the harmful threat-stress response by pushing you to eat foods that will release opiods. The foods sustain opiod release. It’s actually a highly effective coping behavior! Your body is smart– only problem is, while it solves the other stress hormone problem, the brain grows dependent on it. It could easily be something else – like cocaine, but once your brain finds a way to regulate the danger, it grows reliant on it. Your body is empowering itself to stop the damage of the stress-response. Fatty foods release the same chemicals as cocaine in the brain reward system (opioid, dopamine and endocannabinoid)which creates a powerful addiction loop.It also makes you dependent on the reward center chemicals– your body’s natural morphine, and you can literally go through withdrawals from eating lots of fatty/sugary foods to calm yourself. Neurobiological adaptations occur from repeated use of this drug called “stress-eating,” aka you form new muscle memory, so the more you use it, the more you’ll increase the compulsiveness of your overeating. Because fatty and sugary foods mess with your glucose, you might experience mood swings that make you feel like a baby, crashes of depression. Not to mention, messed up periods and decreased sex drive from the hormone fluctuations.

Most importantly:

In order to help yourself out of this habit, you’ve got to tackle the stress and the stress-chemicals, overall. Not just the symptom – which is stress-eating. Give yourself a leg up where you actually have access to your highest thinking: when you’re outside of that habit’s powerful loop. Once you can build up a rhythm and be successful in this soothing, you will naturally tend toward that thing: it’s not this hard forever. Like your body will actually say to you, “I need to go running.” It’s not just that you’re different than other people – this is just what comes from creating chemical balance. We are always able to choose how we want to think about the situation, but in the moment it’s easy to forget because when you’re triggered you’re reacting. That’s why I want to empower you to have access to your conscious, higher thinking before you’re in a really stressed out state.


I want to give you a few tools to dismantle the feeling from all sides but I want to clarify something, first. Some believe that stressing out is helpful to them because it makes them more alert. That’s a false belief.  While facing challenges does grow you, a really toxic reaction to stress does not.  It all comes down to your internal reaction to the stress.  If you are experiencing anxiety and fear, you are not better able to handle the situation. You are actually hyper focusing and therefore blinded to a more intelligent part of your brain. If anything, you’re HURTING the outcome. If you are having a severe reaction to the stress –physically or you are using unhealthy methods to soothe it, then you must take steps to get a handle on it. You’ve got to do right by your body while you still have your health. Otherwise you’re going to harm your longevity.  Only you can answer to your personal stress response. I know I thrive under regular stressful circumstances – it’s almost like a high for me and I go into a flow state. I also know when I hit the threat stress state, because it feels very different: things haunt me and I can’t sleep. I can recognize it because I obsess. Like part of me fights it and dreads it. That’s how it feels for me, and that’s when I have to work on soothing and taking a step back. That’s what I want you to get to know, in yourself. As a first step I want you to reflect on your stress-type in your journal.

JOURNAL EXERCISE: What kind of stressor are you?

I want you to become aware of your reactions so you can recognize them, next time. If you expect them, the moment they come up you can start to separate from them in your mind by calling them out. This is how you can choose a new, healthier action and avoid the helpless reaction. Take notes on your schedule: notate the kinds of stress you inevitably will have to cope with – whether related to future work or personal life.

If you know you are a stress-eater, that is because you have a higher sensitivity to stress. If you’re not a stress-eater, I want you to reflect on the last really stressful time of your life and circle with a highlighter any moments you feared what was to come. Take apart the narrative that was going through your mind and ask yourself whether or not the thoughts were rational. Were you fixated on worry or were you able to focus on actions? Were you obsessed and losing sleep over what people might think of you? Were you anxious and feeling overcome by the factors or were you able to let go of the future?

In order to change a habit of stress-eating, your solution needs to come with a complete view of the challenge: how it’s set up, what inspires it. Your solutions will come in the form of planning and holistic change in favor of calming and soothing. The change will all be inconvenient and feel like they are too hard or you don’t have enough time. But there’s always time if you make it. You can affect the before and the after – so that’s what I want to tackle with you.  Being more diligent about practical non-triggered steps and planning. Neurosis is self-perpetuating and needs to be recognized and then released. Real change won’t happen all at once. It will happen a little bit at a time, almost imperceptibly. Don’t fixate on the outcome, fixate on the actions you take, today. Right now. For healthy habits to take hold you must enact them from a place of safety, control and rational awareness. They must become innate habits.

Tool 1: Surfer Self-talk

I want you to start to talk to yourself aloud in moments of stress and intensity. Sometimes if you just say the right things to yourself, you can calm yourself down – even when your body’s not convinced yet. It will have an effect that’s similar to hearing the words of another person who comforts you. Basically, play the role of a surfer with your words: the chill, cool friend who smiles and gives you a nice neck rub.  Who’s never in a rush when they’re late. Who looks upon this project as a totally doable thing. Phrases like, “Chill.” Or “Dude you got this,” or, “Let’s get you to the sauna, buddy.” You could also picture Brad Pitt from True Romance.

Tool 2: Make a Pacifier

Stress-eating could just as easily be masturbation or drugs, so a pacifier in this tool, means a replacement soothing mechanism. Something in your biology makes you more susceptible to food – so in order to support yourself I want you to create a new and healthy addiction. By that, I mean take up something that scratches a compulsion – no, not smoking or masturbation or drug use. Something like blasting music while jumping up and down or filling your shopping cart without clicking “purchase” or even yogic breathing while fake-smiling, with your hand you’re your heart. But something else that creates a similar chemical release to fatty foods.

Your first step is to figure out a replacement in a more casual circumstance, like in a controllable and mildly stressful time, and using it. For example, after spending an hour in traffic. And yes, all of them will feel ridiculous and inconvenient and will take consistent use to feel natural – just don’t stop until it sticks in your memory. In addition to a soothing practice, eat as many plants and whole grains nuts seeds and beans as possible.

Tool 3: Zag the Stress Ritual

With soothing mechanisms – especially addictive ones, it’s all about slowing down the time between the trigger and the reaction – so that you can choose anything new to replace it. The more you can delay yourself, the better your chances will be of avoiding the soothing mechanism (stress-eating). It has nothing to do with food – everything to do with a machine-mode-like shutting off of anxiety. So in short, this tool is basically to do ANYTHING to “zag” your reaction: whatever it is, head in a totally novel direction. Maybe normally you go by the drive-thru by your freeway exit and eat on your way home. To ZAG in this ritual, you might turn around and go to a mini-golf course and play a round or two. Or something like make a wish in the park fountain. ANYTHING NEW.

The fear and anxiety that come from stress usually distract you from what you’re doing with your body. You can disempower the physical rituals you enact by interrupting them.  Although it never feels like it, everything you do is a choice. Every action you take is a decision. It’s a whole lot easier to change that decision at the start of your stress reaction. Stepping back and recognizing you need to hit the red “zag” button and get off that ride, asap.

Tool 4: Escalator Ride

This is a reference to the movie Soap Dish when Sally Field’s character (a soap actress) would take a ride on the mall escalator to feel more confident and like herself.  As soon as people recognized her, they’d flock to ask for autographs – restoring her own faith in herself. I want you to do something similar in that it’s a way to grow your self-command abilities. You can enhance your connection to your power by practicing things that you know you are good at. Alternately you can practice something expressive or creative, that is purely for the sake of art – for example, music, dance, drawing, or cooking. Maintaining this practice will enable you to stay more in control of your smartest actions when you’re stressed out. Another way to grow your power is to try new things that are intimidating to you.

Tool 5: Usual Suspect Lineup

This is a tool for dismantling the confusing mess of stress. Whatever your feelings are, name them in physical form. All your rambling fears and irrational worries, write them down on a piece of paper and they immediately lose part of their ability to control you on a subconscious level. If you’re in the car and can’t write, describe them aloud and call out their place in your physical body. So if you feel tightness in your chest, become aware of that, name it, and start to relax into that part of your body. The point is to expose the thoughts and feelings, externally, and remove them from your subconscious so that you can see them for what they are: thoughts, feelings and nothing more.  This is how they lose potency.

Tool 6: Room Hygiene

Similar to the practices of those who have insomnia, I want you to practice room hygiene that keeps very strict rules for where you eat. You’re going to make it difficult for yourself to enact unconscious habits by creating rituals that are very conscious. I also want you to create food hygiene, or a set of rules around where and how you will feed yourself. Basically, you are going to set up a routine with very specific rules and rituals – for food and for work.

For a start, you are not to have food in your office or car. If you have another place you normally soothe via eating, this too will be a no-food zone from this point forth. All of this is to give you some safety zones: a buffer when you’re in the headspace that could lead to a food-soothing loop. Food hygiene will be similar in that I want you to make the meals you consume ritual and special. During stressful times, eat something memorable, exciting, and colorful for meals and only eat at a dinner table with real silverware. Pay attention to your food and chew each bite with clarity and focus. If you’re eating with someone else, describe the flavors of the food to one another in detail. Leave work out of the conversation while food is involved.

Before I close, I want to thank my latest sponsors – Jeremy! Holy cow you made my day! And Sharon – thank you, thank you, I appreciate it so much! And if anyone reading has time to leave a review on iTunes or share this with someone who could use it – that is always greatly appreciated.

In closing…

You come first. Even when deadlines are pressing or work is competitive, you need to have a structure to take care of yourself.  Health and achievement are not mutually exclusive. You’ve got to be deliberate and intentional about self-care: create a strict routine that keeps your chemicals balanced. You get to decide what to make a priority, and if you begin making this a goal, I believe you will find that things in your life will organize themselves accordingly. We get in our own way and make things seem like they’re so much harder than they are in practice. When it comes to things that stress you out – remember it’s not all up to you, and that’s a good thing. Often the answers will come from outside your range of focus. You can never predict the future – fear is the worst part of life. All you can do is your best and you need your reflective brain for that, which cannot be accessed via stress. Try to take breaks from whatever project you are dealing with, because you might find that you have access to better solutions because of it. Kind of like when you try hard to remember something and it only arrives when you stop forcing it. As a rule, go easy on yourself and remember to let go of what isn’t what you wanted it to be. Every experience is a gift, and whatever happens you will come out of this a better person. As long as you try your best and you don’t repeat the same mistakes, you’ve won.


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