Stress eating falls under the general umbrella of emotional eating: A pattern where food becomes a self-soothing mechanism to deal with a distressing situation.
Nearly all of us have done this on occasion without serious consequence. You might come home late after a difficult day at work and pick at a pint of ice-cream, barely noticing you’re eating until your spoon hits the bottom of the tub. Or you might find yourself standing in front of the fridge, snacking on leftovers after you’ve had a tiff with a friend – thinking less about the curry you're eating than about a spiteful comment you made.
These habits don't necessarily mean you have a problem with stress eating. Rather, it’s when food feels like your go-to strategy for coping with stress that you may wish to address it. Here are seven tips to get you started.
1. Keep a journal to track how your emotions affect your eating habits
If you're not sure what’s actually triggering your stress eating, keeping a journal is a great way to reveal subtle catalysts. For one week, consciously list the following in a journal or on your phone:
- What meals or snacks you over-eat (e.g., a large bowl of spaghetti; three bowls of cereal)
- The time of day you’re eating (e.g., evening after work, lunchtime before class)
- What you were feeling before you ate (e.g., stressed about an upcoming exam at school; nervous after getting a text message from an ex)
- Who you were with (if applicable)
Please note that this is not a calorie tracker! It’s not about judging yourself, or tracking how many calories you’re consuming.
Rather, it’s a way to identify patterns in what prompts your overeating, and notice associations between stress eating and distressing emotions, thoughts, situations, and even other people.
2. Use your food journal to identify personal triggers leading to stress eating
Take a good look through your food journal; you should be able to start identifying recurring triggers for your stress eating.
Those triggers vary widely from person-to-person, but examples include:
- Approaching work deadlines
- Schoolwork or exams
- Uncomfortable social situations
- Negative interactions with a friend
- Being alone
- Staying late at the office or working long hours
- Skipping meals
- Feeling like you’re too busy to have time to eat
This identification is the crucial first part of what Lama Khouri, a therapist in Manhattan who specializes in emotional eating, refers to as the "plan, prepare, and protect" method. First, you identify the moments when you are most likely to overeat, then you make a plan to find other adaptive behaviors that protect yourself from further distress.
One pattern you may notice, for example, is that you tend to stress eat when work deadlines are approaching. The next time you feel the urge to over-eat in a similar situation, first identify any deeper emotions you're having in that moment.
If you're anxious about the work deadline, for example, try proactively identifying ways that will help address that. Perhaps it means having a conversation with your boss, putting a time limit on the hours of your work, or asking a coworker for help.
3. Brainstorm alternative strategies for managing your stress
In the absence of alternatives, we may fall back into old patterns – so try to think of healthier alternatives that you can turn to the next time you feel the familiar surge of stress that may lead you to overeat.
If helpful, list the alternatives out so you have them handy when you need them. They could be stress-reducing exercises, like:
- Memorize a quick relaxation exercise, like these 10 stress-relieving exercises that are so subtle, you can even do them at work.
- Download a language app that you can practice on the fly: 10 minutes is all you need to advance to the next level of Korean in Duolingo!
- Have your self-care kit handy: Cultivate a personal collection of self-care tools to leave out, whether that's a bath bomb, your yoga mat for a quick stretch, or your favorite face mask.
- Call a friend or loved one. If you had a stressful day, consider sharing the details with someone you really trust. If you don’t feel like opening up in-person, consider sharing with an online community messaging board instead. Remembering that you don’t have to face your stressors alone can be a relief in of itself.
You may even wish to have the list handy (try adding it to your Notes app on your phone), so that you can try out an idea as soon as the next urge to stress eat hits.
4. Learn mindful eating techniques you can implement at meals
Thanks to our hectic modern lifestyle, we often rush through our meals distractedly without tuning into the pleasure of eating. When we stress eat, we often aren’t fully aware of the meal or snack in front of us.
Mindful eating can help to change your relationship with food by cultivating moment-to-moment awareness and gratitude. The next time you’re eating, try using all of your senses to experience it with these tips:
- Look at your food with curiosity - what can you learn about it?
- Listen to the sound the food makes, or the noise of you chewing your food.
- Smell your food with curiosity - this can help heighten the enjoyment and taste!
- Taste your food - identify and savor the different flavors.
- Explore the feeling and texture of the food in your mouth.
Each time you are distracted by another thought, bring your focus back to the food. Each time you are tempted to scoop up your next fork-full – anticipating a future mouthful, instead of paying attention to your present mouthful – gently return your attention to the food in your mouth at the moment.
5. Start to differentiate your actual hunger sensations from stress-eating sensations
Sometimes it can be hard to figure out the reason underlying an urge to eat. You may wish to ask yourself these questions:
1. Am I eating because I’m hungry?
Pay attention to how your body feels. "Some people feel hungry in their thoughts, while others feel their mouth salivating," says Rachelle Feintuch-Heinemann, a therapist in New York City who helps clients navigate disordered eating. "Hunger can be experienced in places besides the stomach."
Over time, you’ll become more attuned to the sensations that go hand-in-hand with hunger, and be better able to recognize when you want to eat due to physical hunger rather than stress.
2. If I only had a carrot/lettuce leaf/celery stick, would I still want to eat?
We often crave calorie-dense comfort foods when we are stressed due to an increase in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The thought of a celery stick probably won’t be appealing unless hunger is the reason underlying your urge to eat. This is one handy way to test whether you're stress eating.
6. Embrace "radical acceptance" of life's stressors – and of your reactions to them
When it comes to emotional eating, Khouri encourages her clients to practice of radical acceptance, a skill from dialectical behavioral therapy. Radical acceptance entails actively accepting that life is at times stressful, or sad, or scary – rather than eating to fight off the stress.
Take the earlier example of a fight with your good friend. You may be ruminating over the exchange, defending that hurtful remark you made in the heat of the moment ("what I said wasn't that bad").
Rather than avoiding or pushing against reality by losing yourself in the distraction of food, try to intentionally accept the situation and your feelings about it. By accepting it, you can comprehensively understand the whole scenario, and decide whether you want to apologize or move on.
And remember, even if you do cope by overeating, it's not the end of the world. "Often we end up beating ourselves for overeating," says Khorui, "when really it is just an adaptive mechanism to handle difficult moments in life." Sometimes, we don't react as well as we'd like to situations. That's okay! Give yourself some radical acceptance, too.
7. Consider seeing a therapist for help regulating stress and other emotions
If you’re struggling to get your stress eating under control, know that you are not alone! Many people find it difficult, and benefit from the additional support a therapist provides.
A therapist will be able to help you identify your triggers and develop alternative strategies for coping with stress. You might also find that learning assertiveness skills, time-management skills, or communications skills help you to manage stress more effectively.
You can change your relationship with food and get your emotional wellbeing back, as you learn which strategies will work for you to better manage your emotions.
Most importantly, adds Khouri, remember that we humans are creatures of habit. Just as you might have gotten into a habit that has been negatively impacting your life, you also have potential to develop positive and self-enhancing behaviors that will stick.