We’ve all been there. After a long stressful day, we overeat. As if the stress carved out a bottomless pit in our gut, we feel compelled to replenish it with food.
In my case it used to be the Friday/Saturday combo. They were my busiest and most stressful days. Booked back to back with clients and meetings, I wouldn’t get home until 9pm on Friday night, knowing that I needed to be at work at 9 am sharp on Saturday, and up at the crack of dawn to take care of my household responsibilities before I left. Sometimes there was no time during those days for a proper meal, a walk outside, or any of my usual self-care routines. And although I loved every second of my work with my clients, the office politics and working conditions took a horrible toll on me. Friday nights I would come home and eat a late dinner. A large dinner. I felt like a bottomless pit.
And you know what? It worked–kind of. I was calmer, more relaxed— but unhappy about the fact that I overate. Overeating would set off a vicious cycle: my sleep was disrupted by a full stomach (and breakthrough stress–because stress eating only puts a band aid on stress), and lack of sleep would make me hungrier the next day. Stress, overwork, combined with lack of sleep…guess how I felt on Saturday night? In my case, two nights of overeating didn’t affect my weight because the rest of my work week was more sane. But many people have days like my Fri/Sat killer combo every day. I believe stress-related eating is a major factor in our rising obesity rates.
This article explains how prolonged stress increases production of cortisol. Cortisol increases our appetite and our desire to eat (that “bottomless pit” feeling). Insulin and ghrelin (the hunger hormone) also come into play. This physiological state also influences which foods we choose—high-fat, high-sugar foods—as these produce the most calming effect. With work blurring into our home lives, economic stress, traffic jam stress, “not enough time” stress, health care stress, “how to pay for my kids’ college tuition” stress, and “you-name-it” stress, many of us never get out of this prolonged stressed state. And so we are always puppets on a string of this cortisol-induced “bottomless pit” feeling of hunger.
When looked at from an evolutionary perspective, this process worked fine when food supplies were limited and people ate foods closer to the natural state. But when you combine prolonged stress with an unlimited, ever-present supply of high-calorie, processed food, you have a very big problem.
So, what can be done? Here are three principles that can help you to figure out how to decrease your stress levels so you can decrease your appetite.
- Recognize the connection between your lifestyle and eating. And I don’t mean just give it lip service by acknowledging that your life is crazy. Really take stock of the stress in your life in detail. You won’t be able to tackle it all at once, but you do need to have a realistic idea of the various sources of stress, and the things that can be changed vs. those that cannot.
- Think small. Once you do step one, you might feel discouraged and overwhelmed. It may appear that you need a major life overhaul to bring your stress levels under control. What commonly happens next is when people realize they can’t totally overhaul their lives, they just do nothing. Awhile ago, when I did step one, my first reaction was that I couldn’t possibly reduce my stress unless I moved out of the New York area into the woods of Maine or somewhere. Since I am still living in Westchester county with lowered stress levels, such a grand gesture wasn’t necessary. Don’t look for the perfect answer. Look for an answer—one simple change, one thing different.
- Don’t stop there. Once you make that one change, notice (and be grateful for) the improvements that follow. Keep track, even if this means writing it down: i.e. “avoided getting entangled in office drama and noticed that I didn’t feel the need to overeat today.” Then actively look for the next small change, and the next one…and so on. Make reducing stress a number one priority. Seeing positive results (even small ones) will help you to discover other small areas where you can reduce stress. You may be surprised.
I really believe in the ripple effect (small changes, big results). I also believe–and am living proof–that the degree to which you can reduce stress/increase peace is the degree to which you can curb stress eating.