What Causes Stress Eating?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself gravitating toward too much “comfort” food, “junk” food, or “unhealthy” things even when you didn’t really want to?
Both of my hands are raised. :)
When life is going smoothly, it’s easy to stay on track and eat the things that will help you to reach your goals. Right?
But as soon as we get stressed, get injured, or have something bad happen in our lives most of us will default to eating lots of things we should only be eating in moderation.
It’s unlikely you will reach for veggies or a steak dinner or even fruit when you are stressed or unhappy about something.
What’s more likely for us to seek out is something like pizza, ice cream, pie, chips, candy, cookies, lots of peanut butter, etc, etc.
Why is that? Why do we always go for the junk first? Why is that our default?
Well, the short answer is when we’re stressed or unhappy our self-control takes a back seat. Which means our long-term goals like weight loss, becoming healthier, performing better, etc all become less important in that moment.
The reward center in our brains turn on and it drives us to find instant gratification. And one of the first things we usually do is eat more than we should.
However, as we all know, eating a tub of ice cream, a jar of peanut butter, or an entire box of cookies has never fixed our stressful job, a breakup, an injury, a death in the family, or anything else.
It does quite the opposite actually. It makes us feel even worse because of the decision we made.
We’ve all been there because it’s just a human thing to do. Don’t think it’s just you. It’s everybody.
But here’s the thing, according to the American Psychological Association these are the most Ineffective stress-relief strategies:
- Playing video games
- Browsing social media
- Watching TV
While these are the most Effective:
- Spending time with friends & family
- Going outside for a walk
- Getting a massage
- Listening to music
- Praying or attending a religious service
Take a good look at both of these lists. Take a mental snapshot of them or even copy and paste the Effective list into the notes section of your phone.
Then you will have a list of things to do that will actually make you feel better about yourself so you’re not regretting your decisions.
Basically, we need to understand that the things our brains push us to do when we’re stressed are not what we actually need to do.
The things we need to do instead are clearly listed above.
It’s up to you to decide which list you want to choose from.
Nobody can make that decision except you. Make that decision enough times and it will eventually become natural to make the right choice. But keep that list close by so you can access it whenever you need to.
Many people are able to make this change so you definitely can too.
This is really all you need to know BUT if you are interested in the science behind it then keep reading…
So, what’s actually happening inside your head is your brain’s reward center is releasing dopamine to the areas of the brain that anticipate pleasure and plan action.
Dopamine’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to actually make us happy like many people think it does.
Dopamine is all about getting us to take action.
So when we are stressed or unhappy, our brain releases dopamine to get us to take action. Then the reward center also sends a message to the brain’s stress center to release stress hormones.
This creates anxiety. You begin to feel anxious as you anticipate the thing you desire (food, alcohol, cigarette). It begins to feel like a life-or-death emergency. You just GOTTA HAVE THAT piece of cake or else.
The real stress relievers as found in the Effective list above, boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
They also help shut down the brain’s stress response, reduce stress hormones in the body, and induce the healing relaxation response.
Because the activities on the Effective list aren’t exciting like the dopamine releasers, we tend to underestimate how good they make us feel.
So we forget these strategies not because they don’t work, but because when we’re stressed, our brains persistently mispredict what will make us happy.
This means we often talk ourselves out of doing the very thing that will actually make us feel better.
The next time you’re feeling stressed or unhappy, hit the gym, meditate, do some yoga, or go for a walk.
If you don’t like the choices you’re making now then decide to choose differently. Choose what you truly need in your life instead of following the urges you feel.