4 Powerful Tools To Help You Stop Stress Eating

Licensed Psychotherapist By Eliza Kingsford, LPC
Licensed Psychotherapist
Eliza Kingsford, LPC is a licensed psychotherapist based in Boulder, Colorado. She received both her bachelor's and master's in psychology from The University of Colorado.
When Stress Eating Becomes Unhealthy & 4 Powerful Ways To Stop

Image by Emily Wilson / Unsplash

When we encounter stress that we perceive as chronic and out of our control, we are more likely to reach for food for comfort. And when we eat highly rewarding food in particular (aka food that is high in sugar and/or fat and usually highly processed), it dampens the activity of our threat response system (TRS), an intricate network of brain structures that alert us to stress, and we start to feel better.

This becomes problematic when the brain gets conditioned to believe that junk food is what we need to feel better during stressful situations, so it actively seeks out these unhealthy foods again and again. Here are a few tips and tricks that I use in my clinical practice to help people in the face of stress eating:

1. Practice mindfulness first.

The best way to outsmart our reptilian brain, which urges us to eat even when we don't want to, is to practice mindfulness. When in the face of stress, the best thing we can do is slow down and take a couple of deep breaths. This resets our sympathetic nervous systems and allows us to focus on making better decisions, decisions that will serve us in the long run and not just provide temporary satisfaction.

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2. Don't put yourself in tempting situations.

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Research tells us that when the brain urges us to eat in reaction to stress, we are never looking for bland, simple foods to soothe us. It is always highly palatable or "junk" food. And this isn't just because we prefer it. It's because our brain mistakes it for food necessary for our survival due to its unnatural combination of calories and reward (salt, sugar, fat). Another thing we can do to combat our urge to eat junk food is to remove temptation. Try not keeping junk food in your home. Your brain is going to seek out junk food, so why would you put yourself in the easy situation to indulge in it?

3. Make a mindful and intentional decision.

If junk food actually does help dampen the threat response system, perhaps you will mindfully and intentionally choose to eat (or drink) something that makes you feel better. This is not necessarily a problem. It becomes a problem when that intentional decision turns into a weeklong junk food bender that makes you feel worse about yourself in the long run. Ask these three questions before deciding to dive into the chocolate cake:

  • Do I want this?
  • Will I feel shame or guilt after eating this?
  • Do I need this?
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4. Create your list of other options.

Our best tool to combat stress eating is to create a list of other activities that will make us feel better without the guilt that overeating often brings. Research tells us that there are other things that will create a response similar to the one junk food brings without the guilt and frustration of overeating. These are things like connection, mindfulness, meditation, exercise, and (if you're really going for it) romance. These things will also naturally dampen your threat response system and help you manage stress more effectively.

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