How to respond to stress

01.17.14 |

Overstressed? No Need to Overeat!

From the moment the buzzing alarm clock jolts us out of a sound sleep, most of us whiz through the day under stressful conditions. Finally, after everyone else has gone to bed, curling up on the couch with a pint of ice cream seems to be the best way to unwind.
Yet even when we know in our minds that “comfort foods” won’t solve our problems, many of us still find ourselves overeating when we’re under stress. There are reasons for this—and ways you can resist the urge to binge.

Responding to Stress

Why does feeling stressed cause us to overeat? For one, eating is an effective way to temporarily forget about our problems. When we focus on food, we escape from our problems, at least for a little while. We’ve probably learned from past situations that food enables us to do this. And so eating distracts us during times of stress, and it feels good. Think about it—how many times have you run out of the office to grab some candy when you’re having trouble tackling a problem at work, or meeting a deadline?

There are physiological explanations as to why we feel calmer when we eat. As blood flows from the brain to the stomach for digestion, we start to feel at ease, and ultimately relaxed. When we gorge ourselves with food, we escape in a somewhat “unconscious” way. Binging on very large amounts of carbohydrates produces a “sugar high,” which can result in a “numb” feeling, taking us away from what we really feel.

In addition, the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands into the bloodstream during stressful times causes levels of serotonin, a hormone responsible for relaxed and content feelings, to decrease. Theories based on animal studies suggest that decreased levels of serotonin causes increased cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods. This is when you need to “buckle up” and refuse to give into these cravings.

Immediate solutions to prevent eating in response to stress

So what can you do when you feel the urge to binge? Well, there are lots of different things to do! Here are 20 activities you can do instead of grabbing those cookies or chips when you feel an overwhelming desire to eat. Before you try these suggestions, however, make a deal with yourself-that is, if you wish to have a specific food, you can have it, but only after you’ve done three things on the list below.

20 things you can do instead of eating

1. Read a book—or your favorite fitness magazine
2. Search for a Web site, on a topic that is of interest to you but that you haven’t had time to pursue
3. Go for a walk
4. Call or email a friend
5. Write in a journal
6. Go window-shopping
7. Play a game with your spouse, children, or pets—whether it’s Frisbee or fetch, checkers or chess
8. Do an exercise video, or hit the gym for aerobics, weightlifting, or yoga
9. Tackle some household chores: dust, vacuum, balance the checkbook, etc.
10. Take a long bath or shower
11. Start your holiday gift list—both gifts to give, and gifts to receive
12. Alphabetize your books, CDs, videotapes, spice rack…
13. Do some outside chores: work in the garden, mow the lawn, rake leaves, or shovel snow
14. Meditate or pray
15. Work on a craft project that will keep your hands busy: knitting, needlepoint, painting, woodworking, etc.
16. Crank up your stereo and dance around the living room
17. Try on old clothes—clothes that are now too big as well as clothes that are still too small
18. Research healthy recipes to prepare for the coming week, and make a shopping list
19. Brush your teeth, use a strong mouthwash, then pop in a piece of extra-minty gum
20. Start, or add to, a scrapbook of your weight loss journey. Include photos, motivational articles, and your own thoughts and feelings

Longer-term solutions

The best way to decrease the urge to binge on high-calorie foods when experiencing stressful feelings is to get at the root of the problem: that is, get at the root of what’s eating you. Figure out what is causing the stress, and address the problem immediately. For example, if you are stressed about your job, find ways to cope with the problem. This can mean talking with friends and family, or speaking with a mental health professional.

Talking about a stressful situation helps us to feel calm and connected to others, which can help to relieve feelings of frustration and confusion. Another feeling that causes stress and subsequent overeating is the feeling of helplessness, and lack of control. A good way to approach this feeling is to focus on the things that you do have control over, and can make a difference in. For example, try volunteering at a local hospital, or delivering meals to the elderly. Certainly avoiding excess calories and exercising regularly are examples of things we have control over—and things that we should focus on.

Other suggestions for dealing with stress over the long-term

Consume a low-fat diet and limit alcohol and caffeine. Low-fat diet offers many other benefits, such as weight loss and protection against heart disease. As caffeine can further stimulate the central nervous system, thereby intensifying the stress response, it’s best to avoid caffeinated beverages, such as coffee and colas. In addition, alcohol intake should be minimized, as it can increase appetite and decrease control over eating behavior.


Research shows that exercise can help to reduce stress. It can help us to “vent” negative emotions, and it helps to boost our endorphins, or “feel-good” hormones, ultimately improving our mood. Exercise also decreases our appetite, helping us to consume fewer calories. Try to engage in a regular exercise routine, even if that just means going for a 10-minute walk every day. Finding exercise buddies can be a great way to connect with others and do your body good at the same time.

Incorporate relaxation techniques as part of your daily routine.

Yoga, meditation, or even deep breathing can help to take the edge off. Visualizing a peaceful place can be a soothing way to “escape” from reality, for just a few needed seconds.