How to avoid mindless stress eating

Q: How can I prevent myself from stress eating? Sometimes I’m barely paying attention to what I’ve eaten until it’s gone, and then I feel sick or guilty afterward.

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Food is one of our most primal relationships. As children we learned to seize control by refusing to eat our vegetables. A stellar report card was rewarded with an ice cream cone. If no one was there to give us attention, a bowl of cereal did the trick. We were given messages in our formative years that food was control, reward and companionship, so it’s no surprise that it remains a complicated relationship for many of us in adulthood!

If you engage in stress eating occasionally, it’s easy to joke about (“I’m on a seafood diet. I see food and I eat it”) and take it with a grain of salt. But if you constantly rely on food as your most faithful panacea you likely face shame, isolation, weight fluctuations and a mind-body disconnect. Chew on these tips to change your dynamic with food:

Slow down. If you’re a busy-body constantly fighting the clock you’re probably bringing this same frenzy to eating. Next thing you know, that sandwich is down the hatch and you didn’t bother to savor one morsel. I recommend you close your eyes for the first three bites of food for one meal a day. Get acquainted with the texture, the aroma, and the flavors beyond just salty and sweet. I bet you’ll notice that a little goes a long way to satisfy you now that you’re fully paying attention.

Addiction applies to food. Sugar is a drug. Research increasingly points to sugar rather than fat as the demon in our diets. That being said, be patient with yourself. After all, you wouldn’t tell someone who’s an alcoholic to wake-up one day and get over it on their own? Yet we expect ourselves to change our eating behaviors with sheer willpower.  Even more difficult is that you can’t completely abstain from food and still survive as you could with alcohol or drugs. This is why support from others is key. Create a team — the combination of a nutritionist, therapist, naturopathic doctor, personal trainer, and family support — to provide education, assist you in changing neural pathways, and help you believe in yourself again.

It’s not what you’re eating but how you’re eating. Say goodbye to scarfing down your food over the kitchen sink like it’s the Last Supper.  Eat with the intention of being around others. This usually slows us down and reminds us of the communal experience food can bring. Even if you’re eating alone, set out a full place setting and recognize you still deserve a delicious, well-balanced meal fit for a queen.

It’s not what you’re eating, but what’s eating you. Food may be your segue to (temporarily) bypass strong or unfamiliar feelings. Binging, withholding or numbing-out with food are symptoms of a larger emotional problem. If food has become your ultimate distraction to feeling discomfort, bored or lacking in some way, now is the time to learn how to stop running from yourself. If you went straight to your wound and asked yourself what really needs attention, you’d save yourself these secondary problems of guilt and stomach ache. Learning to tolerate emotion begins with knowing it’s our human right to feel and that feelings are powerful tools for living a full life. 

Being a drill sergeant with yourself won’t lead to change, being kind will. Let each day be a new opportunity to provide nurturance and nourishment with food. Honor your physical cycle and avoid restricting after a binge, as that pushes your body into starvation mode, leading you to be ravenous. Being mean and critical with yourself only deflates your self-confidence and distracts from the real needs within you. Let go of the following unhelpful thinking patterns, which are often precursors to spiraling behavior: over-personalizing, comparisons, catastrophizing, and black and white thinking (“I already had 2 cookies, so I might as well eat the whole box.”)

Reconnect to your body and it will help lead the way. Emotional eating is a way to dissociate — being literally present without actually fully being aware. I believe the best way to immediately find presence is through connection to your breath, sensations and muscular dynamics. This, in turn, leads to being connected to your intuition and inner-knowing. The more you listen to the wisdom of your body the more you’ll be able to stop and ask yourself, ‘What do I really need right now, food or a nap?’ Mindful forms of movement like yoga, qi gong, tai chi and walking, among others, help you learn to be curious versus critical of your body.

Let go of thinking about food in terms of good/bad, right/wrong and shift to seeing it about sustenance, celebration and sensuality. Let yourself eat with gusto, among loved ones, without rushing. Regularly take time to listen to what your body is truly hungry for in the moment. Virginia Woolf put it beautifully: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Can I get an Amen? 

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.