Why Do I Stress Eat?
Let’s talk about why you stress eat (i.e., eat food in response to stressful feelings), while others at your job or in your social circle can eat food without going overboard.
This post will answer why you stress eat and cover the following topics:
- Typical Stress Eating Example
- Stress Eating Definition
- 8 Signs Of Stress (or Emotional) Eating
- What Causes Stress Eating
- Common Triggers For Emotional Eating
- Reasons “Why Do I Stress Eat?”
- Two-Step Stress Eating Cure (Big Picture)
You can also watch a video I made answering this common question “Why Do I Stress Eat?”
Typical Stress Eating Example
Here’s a typical example of stress eating, which oftentimes occurs when you’re over-stressed and overworked:
- You come home from work, eat dinner, and can’t stop eating after dinner.
- You snack on sugary things during the day and never feel satisfied with food.
- In the past, you’ve tried things like ‘no sugar for a week’ but you always seem to fail at these attempts to control your food intake
Usually the people who stress eat are disciplined, organized and hard working. They are intelligent. And this is what can be so confusing for people who stress eat – they are disciplined people, so why can’t they stop eating?
Is this you? Are you starting to realize that your typical approach to manage and control your stress eating isn’t working?
Stress Eating Definition
The definition of stress eating is overeating food in response to your stressful feelings, instead of in response to normal hunger.
If this definition of stress eating sounds identical to the definition of emotional eating, please note that stress eating is a subset of emotional eating. There’s a lot of overlap between the two types of eating, but they are not identical.
Here is the definition of emotional eating according to MedicineNet.com – “ Emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food — usually “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.”
Can you spot the difference between stress eating and emotional eating?
The difference between emotional eating and stress eating is that emotional eating can occur for any negative emotion while stress eating is limited to only the emotions of stress.
If you are eating because you are sad or depressed, this is emotional eating. On the other hand, if you are eating due to anxiety, this is stress eating.
This linguistic difference may sound insubstantial, but it’s important. Our culture actually has a somewhat more accepting attitude towards stress than other emotions. For example, some people proudly say how busy they are and how much stress they have at work to demonstrate that they are hard workers. Their stress becomes a symbol of pride!
While struggling with stress seems to be tolerated socially, struggling with your emotions is less accepted socially. You rarely hear someone tell you how sad they are at work, or how their depression forced them to take a sick leave.
Because of these cultural differences, stress eating has less stigma than emotional eating. In reality they are very similar, but people may admit to being a stress eater and feel resistance towards labeling themselves an emotional eater.
8 Signs Of Stress (or Emotional) Eating
To better understand stress eating, first we need to better understand the broader concept of emotional eating. On the right column you can see 8 signs of emotional eating. I will elaborate on these points briefly, with an emphasis on how stressful eating fits into them.
All of these signs are shared between emotional eating and stress eating, except for the point about “upsetting emotion”. Emotional eating can occur in response to any upsetting emotion, whereas stress eating is specifically a response associated stressful feelings.
You suddenly experience cravings. You are working hard at your desk and all of a sudden your tummy is roaring at you. This oftentimes occurs because you just experienced something stressful, and eating food can help you block out that stress temporarily. For example, you may have just opened up a stressful email and then suddenly find yourself craving cookies.
In point number 4, you’ll see the word urgent. Urgent is another descriptor of cravings. The difference between urgent and sudden is intensity and quickness. Usually sudden refers to the timing of the craving. One moment it’s not there, another moment you are feeling something.
On the other hand, urgent refers to how intensely something feels to you. A craving usually feels very intense. Normally we experience urges with less intensity for normal biological events – like going to the bathroom. An emotional craving for food though will be experienced as more intense than the urge to go poop.
2. Specific Food:
Can you recall a time in life where you were truly hungry? True hunger is marked by being willing to eat anything that will fulfill your hunger. For example, if you were truly starving to death you would be willing to eat a dead animal. While this may sound grotesque, this highlights the opposite nature of emotional eating. In emotional eating situations, you crave a specific food like peanut butter or cupcakes. No other food feels like it will satisfy your craving. You can tell you are emotionally craving food when the food is a specific item.
3. Above The Neck:
This phrase occurs to feeling hungry in your mouth, eyes and nose – but not your stomach. To catch this experience in action, you’ll need to slow down. The next time you have a sudden craving for a specific food, slow down and notice if you actually feel hunger in your belly. Very frequently, your belly will be fine, and just your mouth will be watering for food. If this is the case, you can then reconsider if you actually want this food or not.
It’s strange how urgent and intense the desire to eat because of stress can be. You’re not physically hungry, right? So why the intensity of being driven to eat? One reason stress eating can feel so urgent, is because stress can feel dangerous. While the rational part of you knows that a stressful email doesn’t necessarily mean you are in any danger physically, you still may have a gut reaction of being in danger because of the same email! The other parts of you desperately want to escape the stressful feeling in whatever manner possible, oftentimes by eating.
5. Paired With Upsetting Emotion:
We covered this point already 🙂 Emotional eating is because of a negative upsetting emotion, whether that be stress, anxiety, depression, grief, or boredom.
6. Involves Automatic Eating:
Have you ever driven home from work, yet have no memory of the drive? This feeling can be a little creepy. How did you get home so quick?! To preserve energy, our minds will shut off when we do something repetitious. Therefore, if you have a habit of stress eating in response to negative feelings, your mind will shut off because this is a familiar routine. Another reason your mind will shut off is to numb you from the stressful feelings.
7. Does Not Stop When Full:
This characteristic ties in with ‘Above The Head’. If you are disconnected from your emotions and body because you subconsciously think a situation is dangerous, you won’t notice when you are full. In fact, you’ll keep on eating far beyond the point of fullness because once you are bloated, you will actually go into a ‘food coma’. A food coma is when you get so full that you can barely stay awake. So if you are stressed out, your body will actually try to get to eat food so that you take a break.
8. Feels Guilty:
Nobody likes losing control and eating too much. Guilt is one of the hallmark signs of stress and emotional eating.
What Causes Stress Eating?
Stress in general is defined as a situation where your resources are not sufficient for the task at hand, with consequences on the line.
For example, you have a big deadline … but only 24 hours to complete the deadline. Not enough resources for the task at hand, and potential consequences like being fired or not getting a good performance review.
This situation is evaluated at lightning quick speed by your brain. Your brain quickly does calculations. “Will I get fired if I turn this in late? I might get fired, so I better work real hard late into the night so that I don’t risk it!”
Somehow you are able to stay up late, and get your work done. You push past the point of sleepiness because something bad will happen if you don’t get your work done.
Looking back in hindsight, it seems odd that you stayed up the whole night working with total focus. How did you manage that burst of energy?
Well, there is a biological basis for this!
Seeing that there is impending danger, your brain releases “stress hormones”. These hormones are the biological cause of stress eating.
Scientifically, these hormones include things like adrenaline and cortisol. You don’t need to know much about these chemicals. Basically cortisol and these other hormones give you temporary energy. Yet then these chemicals lead to a crash.
We all know stories where a Mom sees her child trapped under a car, and then … these mothers are somehow able to LIFT the car up and save their child. This is an example of stress hormones in action:
Mom sees child is going to die > Current resources don’t match task at hand as Mom knows she’s not strong enough to lift car. > Release of chemicals to give temporary energy.
These Bursts Of Energy Lead To Crashes
These stories are amazing to hear. Yet oftentimes you don’t hear about the aftermath.
After this burst of energy, then these stress hormones that you were using as energy get depleted.
For example, with the moms who saved their children’s life, oftentimes they expend so much energy they have to go to the hospital and rest for a few days.
The stress hormones gave her a temporary boost of energy, but at tremendous cost.
After your stress hormones are spent you are in a depleted state. You’ve just released a ton of energy, and now the crash is coming. This means you are in a vulnerable state.
When you are in a vulnerable state, this is when you subconsciously might feel most in danger. For example, the Mom who did the Herculean work to lift the car, she is most vulnerable after the stress hormones have left her body and she’s weak.
And in turn this can lead to you suddenly having a desire to stress eat.
You are most vulnerable after the stress hormones have worn off. This oftentimes is when an intense desire for food comes in. You are feeling weak, vulnerable and rather than feeling these upsetting emotions, you turn to food.
And this same reaction can happen as well in every-day scenarios. You don’t have to be doing the heroic work of lifting a car to save a child. You can experience the same crash and the same feelings of vulnerability and vulnerability after, for example:
- a hard day at work
- grocery shopping in the midst of coronavirus
- financial struggles
- being ignored by a partner or friend
Where does food and overeating fit into a stressful life style?
Food temporarily blocks the feeling of being weak. Food temporarily disconnects you from feeling stressed. By doing so, food makes you feel safe. And the feeling of safety is then learned as a ‘reward’ for stress eating, so stress eating becomes wired into your brain as an eating habit to keep you feeling safe.
Therefore, these chemicals with the upswing and the corresponding downswing are the cause of stress eating from a biological perspective. Yet it’s this feeling of emotional safety which wires stress eating into your brain so that it becomes a deeply embedded habit.
Now that we know what causes stress eating, let’s examine the big picture view on how to cure stress eating.
Two-Step Stress Eating Cure (Big Picture)
The big picture cure to stress eating is put into practice these two steps:
- Know What Triggers And Depletes You
- Use Long-Term Productivity Mindset To Prevent Triggers And Depletion
Know What Triggers And Depletes You
The first step is actually pretty simple – learn what triggers and depletes you. Let’s quickly define ‘triggers’ and ‘things that deplete’ you:
- A trigger is something that causes you to lose control in an instant
- Things that deplete you make your energy decrease gradually over time
Know What Triggers You
Here are some examples of triggers:
- Someone cuts you off in traffic, causing you to respond instantaneously with rage, without thinking. You honk your horn, speed up, and cut the other person off.
- Your boss gives you a stern talk, and somehow you are reminded of your parents yelling at you as a child, and this triggers a panic attack.
- Someone jokingly calls you a name that a bully used to say to you. While this person’s intentions were comical, you fly into fury and explode on this person.
A trigger is something that can remind you of a childhood trauma or an existing insecurity. Your response to being triggered far outweighs what most people would call considerate.
The reason we want to know our triggers is because once we are triggered, we lose control or rational thinking.
(You may need to see a therapist to help you further identify the source of insecurities.)
The idea behind this first step, ‘Know What Triggers You And Depletes You,’ is to proactively ‘brace yourself’ before a situation which might trigger you. For example, if you had a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and got very stressed out by seeing real-life battle scenes in movie theaters, then if for some reason you found yourself going to a movie theater to see a war movie, you could bring ear plugs, or a blanket, or take some medication before going.
By having an awareness of your triggers, you can minimize or prevent stressful situations from unfolding.
Know What Depletes You
Of course, many times what stresses you out and depletes your energy are pretty normal everyday activities that you aren’t afraid of.
Here’s a list of activities that might deplete you:
- Staying up late working
- Not getting enough sleep
- Not taking enough time for yourself
This list could go on and on. What depletes your energy? Knowing what depletes your energy is part of this first big step. Knowing this and your triggers leads nicely to the second big step…
Use Long-Term Productivity Mindset
After the first step, now you know what depletes you. For example, you might know that you don’t sleep enough. Yet, between a job and family, you don’t have time to sleep.
Another common example is work. People know their stress builds up at work, but they feel stuck. They have to work to pay the bills, and work is stressful. It seems like a lose-lose situation.
Because work and their commute take up so much time, this person then doesn’t have time to go to the gym, or take time for themselves. Can you relate?
Overall, lack of time is the biggest obstacle people have in reducing their stress. This is where what I call the “long-term productivity mindset” comes in so handy. Because work is the number one reason cited for stress, and because work is also the number one reason people say they don’t partake in stress-reducing activities like exercise, I will use work-related issues to talk about this mindset principle.
How can you decrease stress and get more work done in less time?
The answer is well-documented scientifically.
Big corporations like Google have studied work performance to a high degree because these companies have a massive incentive to maximize worker performance. They have studied what the biggest drops in performance are, as well as the biggest maximizers of long-term performance.
The overall conclusion by the scientific community is that burnout ruins performance, and that you can prevent burnout and boost long-term productivity by taking short breaks throughout the day.
For example, have you ever wondered why companies have been implementing wellness initiatives lately in their workplaces? I used to work as a yoga teacher at Upwork, a freelance internet company, and we did yoga classes for the office.
It turns out that taking smaller frequent breaks – such as a yoga class – will boost your short-term productivity during the day. More importantly, they also help prevent long turn burnout and increase long-term productivity.
How Short Breaks Help With Triggers, And Depletion
The idea is simple – in these short breaks you have to ground yourself.
You take a few minutes where you stop concentrating on work and take care of yourself instead. Because you know your triggers and what depletes you, you can better understand the appropriate actions to take during these mini breaks.
Earlier we talked about a yoga class. But the yoga class is just an example. There are many other smaller breaks that can be done at work in 30 seconds, for example:
- Take a 30-second stretch break once per hour
- Take the long route to get coffee
- Print paper at the farthest printer
- Take phone calls while walking
- Use a standing desk
Now let’s link this directly with knowing your triggers and what depletes you.
For example, I have a sensitivity to being bossed around at work. Even at normal places with fairly normal bosses, I just don’t like taking orders. That’s one of these reasons I became an entrepreneur – simply because I didn’t want to follow someone else’s job structure. So my trigger is having a boss.
If a boss then angers me, and I have awareness of my trigger, then I can take a small break and calm down.
Instead of believing that I must keep working to please my boss, I know that taking a small break will increase my productivity.
And I can also be aware that generally speaking, I need more sleep, exercise and time to reflect (if these were ‘what depletes me’). Knowing that I need more sleep, exercise and time for myself I might:
- Take a small break and go for a walk (or have my next meeting while walking if possible)
- Sit for a few minutes and journal, meditate or listen to calm music
- Drink water and deep breathe for a few minutes
You may think it’s unlikely that these simple techniques would work. Yet, they do. The key is taking a few breaks each day. Imagine if you have six five minute breaks throughout the day. That’s 30 minutes.
And in these 30 minutes, you are preventing your mind from spiralling out of control.
You are regrounding yourself.
A trigger previously would have exhausted tons of energy, but now you have that more under control. You are also better prepared to deal with the everyday stressors without letting your mind get too worried or stressed out.
If you know these, then you may also be able to use short breaks to deal with them more effectively ….. and really increase your long-term productivity.
Now I realize the central argument of dealing with stress eating is this idea of ‘burnout’.
The idea is you cannot excuse yourself from reducing stress because reducing stress makes you more productive.
Most people will say, “of course I could be happy, lose weight, have energy, if I had time. But I just don’t have enough time.”
This mindset here is about reclaiming your time, and there’s tons of research to back this idea up in reality.
Burnout Productivity Science
Can you see how these ideas don’t take much time at all? Research backs these ideas as helping with productivity in the short- AND long-term and preventing burnout in the long term.
(Burnout is the official language researchers use; for our purposes, you can think of burnout as those times when your stress hormones run out and you begin stress eating)
Laura Putnam is a researcher and speaker who has studied workplace productivity.
Many other researchers have concluded that long-term productivity is greatly enhanced by frequent breaks.
As I noted above and as Laura emphasizes, companies have a huge incentive to find ways to reduce burnout. Did you know that doctors at Stanford Hospital tend to burn out after 1.5 years? And to replace a doctor at Stanford costs 1 million dollars? This is why burnout costs companies so much money and why they want to find ways to stop burnout.
Fortunately, the message of taking short breaks during the day is a win-win situation. Your short- and especially your long-term productivity goes up because you come back to work a bit more focused. And most importantly, you prevent burnout.
The old way of work, work, work just isn’t as productive. You are more productive, in the long-term and short term, if you take care of yourself. And again, this involves understanding your triggers and what depletes you, and taking steps to address them.
The big mindset you have to have is LONG-TERM productivity versus SHORT-TERM productivity.
Put simply, you can push yourself to work hard for a week, 10 days, a month, two months … but eventually you get sick for a whole week. Eventually you burn out.
Burnout is where you lose massive amounts of productivity. You would have been better working less, taking care yourself, and having no burnout.
And this burnout, when you’re not available at work, is what sets you back and your company as well. For example, you can keep on working hard for a few days without much sleep, just relying on the biological reactions to stress hormones that I described above. Yet eventually you’ll have to take time off from work.
This burnout, where you essentially have to take a break from work – or sometimes where you are at work but your performance goes down dramatically – is what happens EVERY time you work, work, work, work without break.
Now in conclusion, let’s briefly put this all together.
You’re stressed and are overeating. If you have tried to control your food using willpower and failed, it’s time to try this different strategy.
Overall, you can stop stress eating by preventing stress from building up in the first place. First learn what is causing your stress and any triggers which might pop up out of the blue.
Know what depletes you. And then begin to implement practices to reduce stress and enhance your long-term productivity mindset.
I’ve described this in the context of work-related stress, but this approach works in many more situations.