In the wake of a global pandemic, there is a new understanding of the role stress and anxiety can play in our everyday habits. One topic I have heard more about than ever before is stress eating. Clients tell me about it as if they are reporting the weather, “I have gained five pounds in the last few months…. I have been doing a lot of stress eating”. I am grateful for how comfortable my clients feel talking to me about this.
However, I also see it as a sign that stress and stress eating have become almost accepted as our new normal!
Our bodies and our health are not designed to withstand prolonged stress. I am a firm believer in not just managing our stress, but also reducing it.
Overeating, as a result of stress eating or emotional eating, takes its toll. Most often weight gain is the main complaint, but depending on where those calories come from, overeating may also increase our risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and chronic disease.
So how do we tackle stress eating and emotional eating in a healthy way? Let us start by understanding mechanisms that are making us reach for food in the first place—executive functioning and conditioning.
Executive functions are a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. When our executive functions are working well, they allow us to make good, well-thought-out decisions. They are at their best when we are well-rested, well-oxygenated, and are relaxed. When we are tired, oxygen-deprived or under stress, our executive functions don’t work as well. We aren’t as quick or as clear in our decisions.
When someone tells me that they “don’t have any willpower around food” I always think about executive functioning.
Consider this. What time of day do you struggle the most with emotional eating or stress eating? In my practice, I don’t think I have ever had a client tell me “first thing in the morning.” They typically tell me “later in the day” or “evening.” This makes sense. This is when we are most tired, following the stressors of our day.
Conditioning is a learned behaviour in response to a “condition”. These learned responses often come from our childhood or past experiences, leading us to associate a certain condition with a specific response. In essence, when we are in a particular environment, or experience a certain sound, taste, emotion, etc., we may respond in a specific—learned—way.