So many of us equate rest and relaxation with food.
And this may be for good reason. Holidays, weddings, celebrations and get-togethers all tend to surround the act of eating. So you’ve had a stressful day. First your high paying customer’s unrealistic expectations left you with the blame. Then, your eighth grader emphatically screamed that you were ruining his life. Now you’re in a fight with your spouse about that bill you knew nothing about. So needless to say, you’re stressed. And in an attempt to rest, and take care of yourself, you just really want to do the one activity you normally equate with rest, relaxation and comfort. You want to eat.
So many cultures have the tradition of preparing food as an attempt to show friendship and love. A new neighbor moves in down the street, and you bring them over a cake to welcome them to the neighborhood. The daughter returns from college and you greet her with her favorite home-cooked meal. When someone dies, you bring over a casserole as a small gesture of support. Food is love, so it makes sense that we use it to soothe ourselves when the self-love well has dried up a bit.
Before we go any further, time for a quick science interlude.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is released when you chow down on your favorite foods. One of dopamine’s main jobs is to send happy signals to your brain and lift your mood. When all is balanced in your body, dopamine will be shut-off once you’ve eaten an adequate amount. So food is rewarding, but only up to a point. But when the body is imbalanced, as in times of stress, the signal to turn-off dopamine can be a no-show. The signal gets thrown off course by stress hormones. This can result in an increase in the reward value of food or more specifically, you downing 2 pints of ice cream.
So, then it makes sense that we eat comfort foods when we’re stressed. We are biologically attracted to the dopamine high we get when we eat. Additionally, most of us associate eating with love, rest and celebration. And how can we blame ourselves for wanting to nurture and love ourselves?
But the question arises, are their other habits we can create that we associate with self-care that will also elicit a dopamine release in the brain? Think of taking care of a small child. We don’t just stop at feeding a baby. We hold her, soothe her when she is crying, play with her, sing to her, change her diaper and make sure she is safe. Can we take care of ourselves in this same, multifaceted way?
Here is a list of activities that can create a dopamine release in the brain:
- Spend 45 minutes jogging, swimming or on the treadmill.
- Learn a new skill. Start that hobby you’ve always dreamt about. Achieving a goal can increase dopamine.
- Use lavender oil or burn lavender scented candles. There is some research to support lavender’s ability to boost dopamine.
- Get together with friends or watch a funny movie. Laughter elicits the release of dopamine.
- Play video games for a dopamine rush. But limit this to an occasional activity as video game playing can be addictive and problematic in its own way.
- Eat protein. Protein helps with the production of dopamine.
Here is a sample of activities that can become self-care rituals:
- Read a good book in a bubble bath.
- Write in a journal.
- Take a walk through nature (weather permitting).
- Go to a movie.
- Get a massage, facial, manicure or pedicure.
- Light candles or burn essential oils.
- Spend time with the family pet or volunteer at an animal shelter.
Take time to create new rituals and rewards that are soothing and celebratory to you. For most of us, food has been used as a reward and an expression of love for most of our lives. Yet, we don’t have to stay stuck in that way of living. Changing any habit takes time. And given that stress eating can have deep emotional roots, additional assistance for a qualified therapist may be necessary.
The point is, it is important to recognize the role food plays in our celebrations and reward system.
That way, we can consciously build a new reward structure into our lives. With time, the hope is to find new ways to boost mood with dopamine as well as self-nurture. The day will eventually occur again when stress is elevated. So think about it now. What other activities besides stress eating would you find rewarding and how can you better nurture yourself in your own time of need?
Food can become a crutch. It brings instant satisfaction and is obviously so easily accessible.
I treat myself with things other than food.
Yes, food can make us feel better when we aren’t feeling so good. A lot of times people eat when they are overwhelmed. I’ve been there myself. We all have crutches of some sort and I do think it is heroic when we deal with them.
Jacqueline Gum says
People hate it when I say this, but I am the opposite of a stress eater… I am a stress don’t eat anything! It’s equally appalling, though. Nobody looks good when they are too skinny either. So looking over your tips, I think they’s work as well… the idea being to relax a bit so that eating becomes more normal
I’ve actually been a stress non-eater myself. I once lost about 15 pounds in 6 weeks due to stress. And no, that wasn’t good either. You are correct that learning to relax is key when dealing with stress. I feel that is often easier said than done, but it is something for which we all should aspire.
Hi Erica – I’m like Jacquie. When I get stressed, I lose my appetite and prefer to drink coffee which isn’t good either. In Spring, Summer and early Fall, I can do my own form of Nature Walk – head out to my gardens. In winter not so much, but now that I’m retired there seems to be a whole lot less to get stressed about in the wintertime so for me, it all balances out.
But I do have family members who eat when stressed – one beautiful niece really packs it on and then has to work amazingly hard to get it all off again.
I’m trying to think of a way to let her know about this post. It has great information she can use. Thanks for sharing.
Coffee is my drink of choice when I’m stressed too Lenie! And I can’t imagine anything worse as caffeine is so stimulating. Totally not good for stress, but I fall into the trap every time!
That is unfortunate about your family member. I would say that she is in good company with her extra pounds being tied to stress. It would be wonderful if this could be helpful to her. Maybe you can bring up some of the suggestions when there is a time that she is talking about her stress eating. It is easier to talk to someone about this when they first bring it up, as that is often when someone is in a place where they welcome feedback.
Beth Niebuhr says
Those are all such good ideas of things to relieve the stress that can trigger overeating. I really like your suggestion to make a list of the things that will work well for you so that it is ready when stress hits. I think I’ll eat some protein now!
Yes, definitely have that protein, Beth! And thanks. I think one of the most important points is to start this work when your not stressed. I’m never personally in a place to start growing just as stress hits.
Really excellent post. I hadn’t thought of eating in terms of dopamine before, but it totally makes sense. And so to replace the overeating part when we’re stressed with other dopamine inducing activities is a brilliant solution. Thanks so much Erica.
You’re welcome Andrew. I wish you low levels of stress, but if stress levels ever rise, I hope this may be helpful for you@
Ken Dowell says
I don’t think that stress leads me to the refrigerator (or restaurant). But I definitely do tend to lose all control at holidays, celebrations, and get togethers. Those aren’t always easy situations to get up and do something else.
I guess the question arises, Ken, as to why you lose control. Is it stress or is it just lots of temptation? If it is stress, I would say that you would have to work on your feelings of stress beforehand and bring things with you that help you cope. That also might mean eating good quality protein before you go to stabilize your blood before stress hits or bringing a dish to share that you will enjoy, but that will help you stay on track. It might mean journalling ahead of time to let go of those negative feelings that others may trigger. It certainly isn’t easy, but there are things that can help.
If you lose control out of a temptation, that is a different story. There are ways to help yourself stay in control, but that is another complicated topic. I will say that a small amount of indulging at special occasions is normal, but the goal is certainly to contain the splurge.
Marquita Herald says
When I was in high school I had a serious problem with emotional eating and it took me through my early twenties to push though that – ugh! I really like your suggestions to distract us from grabbing for comfort food. I use a few things, but drinking a glass of water and taking a short walk around outside with my dog seems to work best for me these days.
That is great, Marquita, that you found a system that works for you. We are all individuals, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for the next. It sounds like you really did some self-exploring and used that information to support yourself in a wonderful way.
Eating is such a reinforcer for it comes to giving comfort, but it can be hard to know when to say when. I think being aware of how it works as a reward on the brain is a good first step. Also too, learning how to listen to your body and realize when you are full is important too. I can shovel food down, that’s for sure.
Yes, there are definitely steps that we can take to help us feel the signal that we are full. Little things like fully chewing our food and eating in a relaxed environment can help. I will say that it is difficult to be mindful of these things while going through emotional distress. That is why it can be beneficial to build supportive habits when it isn’t a time of crisis. I also think that it can be beneficial to find better quality snack foods which can help offset some of the damage done when emotionally eating.
I am also a stress non-eater and have been accused of leading others down this path. They weren’t happy with me because that mean they didn’t get to eat. They had a come to Jesus with me and squared me away. You’re right though, skinny is no good either.
The worst part of not eating when you are stressed is that you can dramatically go up and down in weight based on your mood. This type of weight fluctuation isn’t really good for us either. But it is hard to really care about that when stress hits.
If I’m in a stressed-out or bad mood, you could put the world’s finest food in front of me and I’m just not going to enjoy it. Conversely, if I’m in a good/relaxed mood, I can enjoy a meal at McDonald’s. So I guess that puts me in the stress non-eater category.
In your response to Ken, you bring up ‘temptation overeating’, which I’ll admit I’ve been guilty of in the past, e.g., at summer barbecues, so perhaps you can address this topic in a future post.
Thanks to you and Ken for bringing up the idea of “temptation overeating”. I tend to think of that topic around the holidays, but it makes sense that there is also a ton of temptation with all the summer festivities as well. I’ll definitely take some time to address that in the next few weeks!
Really awesome post Erica. I am the opposite! I tend not to eat when I am stressed out.
I loose weight when I am stressed out.
Good tips above. I will bookmark it for the future. Thanks for sharing x
I’m thinking I should write an article about how to eat when you’re stressed out. Haha. If you look at the other comments on this article, you will see that you are in good company. It makes sense because our digestion shuts down when we go into the fight or flight response. I tend not to eat when I am very anxious, but if I’m just stressed about a bad day, then I want to eat.
William Rusho says
I know stress does make me eat. When I am working out, my mind constantly reminds me of what I should be eating. I think stress puts a strain on my mind, and I forget and eat whatever the cravings want.