It's not your imagination — stress really can pack on the pounds. How many times have you put your foot in your mouth? Well, in this case, it's food in your mouth. Do you spoon peanut butter out of the jar after you get your Visa bill? Do you fantasize about a Snickers bar after a dress-down by your boss?
It's not that you're a lost cause. Stressful situations can create cravings for carbohydrate-rich snack foods, not simply because they taste good, but because they also calm the stress hormones adrenaline and CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone) cortisol. Eating makes us feel good, and certain foods, that are nutritionally barren and made up of mostly sugar, like desserts and simple carbohydrates, affect brain chemicals to improve mood. It's not usually a particular food you want, but rather the feeling of comfort and pleasure that food provides.
A common scenario is that a stressor (your mother-in-law, for instance) has upset the chemical balance in your brain (she's coming and there's nothing you can do about it), and your body wants you to do something about it to restore balance. This can make you very susceptible to emotional eating and trigger a desire for "comfort foods" (pass the pretzels, please). These foods aren't necessarily addictive, but they're just a quick and effective way to bring your stress hormones back down.
In the days of the cave man, stress gave us the extra energy (calories) to mobilize a response to life-or-death danger. Today we take our stress to the local pizzeria and eat it at the counter. These extra calories aren't used in battle, but rather, go straight to our hips. What to do? We need to find ways other than eating to stay calm, cool, and collected. We need tips and tricks that soothe us under stress and release feel-good chemicals in your brain.
Nine anti-stress strategies:
1. Choose a soothing alternative to eating.
Activities such as massage, music, talking to a friend, relaxation techniques, exercise, reading a good book, knitting, and yoga are great for reducing stress.
2. Write it down.
Get stress off your mind and onto the page. The very act of doing this can be cathartic and give you a fresh perspective.
It's known as a great way to relax, but meditation also is helpful for gaining the self-awareness and self-regulation needed to change your relationship with food and even control overeating.
4. Go online.
Read blogs and join message boards or support groups. These things lend support and community, which can help you feel less alone and isolated. You'll understand that you're not the only one going through this experience, and you'll connect with others who are similarly struggling with their weight. It has a normalizing effect. That's why I often share my own weight loss journey with my clients — because I want them to know that I'm the same as they are.
5. Breathe deeply.
Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth, and hold the breath for five seconds.
6. Take inventory.
Look around and name the things near you. Taking notice of yourself in your physical space can center you immediately.
7. Give yourself a reality check.
Ask yourself: Will this really matter one week, one month, or one year from now? Is there anything I can do right now to improve the way I'm feeling?
8. Banish all-or-nothing negative thinking.
It's not too late to get back on the bandwagon with your food plan. If you mitigate damages, the less you have to lose later.
9. Take small steps.
Write out a few ways in which you can break down this problem into manageable pieces. Action always feels better than inaction.
Reprinted from The Skinny Jeans Diet: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Eating, and Finally Fit into Your Pants! with permission of William Morrow/HarperCollins.