Stress Eating: An Emotional Blackhole

Stress and overeating can go hand in hand, but prevention is possible.
By Mariah Xzena Briones, RMT
Certification Specialist
Are your cravings immensely increasing when you’re bombarded with never-ending tasks at work? Have you noticed your study table being more occupied with snacks than books especially during exam week? Food cravings and increased appetite are not always meant to satisfy hunger. It can be a coping mechanism when we are under stress.

Generally, stress is a form of disruption in one’s homeostasis. It is the body’s reaction to a challenge or a stress-inducing stimuli known as stressor. The body releases hormones, which stimulate tension of muscles, upset stomach, and a rapid pulse rate.

In short-term stress, this is the natural way of the human body to manage dangerous or uncomfortable situations; however, it can be harmful when triggered for an extended period of time.

When a person feels they don’t have much control over a situation, it can result in emotional stress. Dr. Borland, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, says most stress can be classified as ‘emotional stress’ since it triggers different kinds of emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, nervousness, excitement, etc.

Stress symptoms manifest differently on each individual – it may be psychological at first, then affect physical health. Overeating, severe headaches, digestion problems, fatigue, forgetfulness, and disrupted sleeping habits are among the most common signs of stress.

But what if you are already accustomed to unhealthy eating habits due to stress? When food has been your comfort throughout life’s stressful situations, how can you change this pattern?

In Alonso-Alonso’s journal article on the food reward system, food may have a similar addicting effect as alcohol and drugs. Eating hyperpalatable food stimulates the reward region of the brain, mainly the hypothalamus. A feel good neurotransmitter called dopamine sends signals to trigger rewarding emotions. Stress-eating serves as a distraction to some, especially during difficult times. But it can be prevented by listening to what your body needs and following these useful tips:

  • Stay hydrated. When stressed out, your mind might tell you that you need to eat when, in fact, you can tame this trigger by drinking water. If you find water boring, you can infuse it with fruits and herbs so it tastes good!
  • Buy healthy snacks. Instead of buying sweets and other guilty pleasures, you should opt to fill up your pantry with fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthier alternatives to chips and soda. Munching may serve as a stress-reliever so if you can’t immediately stop it, you can control the choice of snacks you’ll be munching on.
  • Consult your doctor. If it is getting out of hand, seeking professional help is the best option. Your healthcare provider canhelp you manage your unhealthy coping mechanisms and suggest better strategies for you to overcome them.
  • Take a long walk. Once you are in a state of stress, it’s quite difficult to push yourself to do a full-body workout. Walking around the house or neighborhood can be the best way to start. It helps you think clearly and focus your attention on your tasks rather than your worries.
  • Talk it out. As the saying goes, no man is an island. A strong support system and open communication can save you from hundreds of unwanted calories. Sharing your goals and struggles with your most trusted companion can help manage your stress.

Our response to stress triggers can be tough to control, but practicing discipline in consciously breaking the unhealthy habits can produce positive long-term changes. Experiencing emotional stress is part of life for everyone, so learning how to cope with it in a healthy way is essential to overall well-being and health.

Sources and More Information

Harvard School of Public Health, “The Nutrition Source: Cravings”

Health, “What To Know About Emotional Stress, Including Warning Signs and Coping Techniques”

National Library of Medicine: Medline Plus, “Stress and Your Health”

Life + Health Network, “How to Stop Stress Eating For Good”

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