How to deal with stress eating (Part 1)

mental burden stress stress cycle stress eating Feb 24, 2023

We've all experienced stress: anxiety, overwhelm and just being completely exhausted. Then we finally get to our cozy space, put on the comfy pants, reach for the bag of chips and collapse on the couch with our social media of choice.

Why is this actually happening?

The eating part is called stress eating and it's so very common. You are not alone on the couch with your bag of chips. It affects adults and it also impacts kids. Yes, our kids are stressed too.

But if we are going to understand stress eating, we first need to start with understanding the stress.

If you think back to our ancestors they were just be wandering along and then they will hear the rustling behind them. Out jumps a tiger (ok, not my Virginia ancestors, but you see where I’m going). All of a sudden there's adrenaline and cortisol pumping through their veins, getting their heart racing, their muscles tense up, and they boogie to get out of there. They run as fast as they can to escape the tiger and get back to the safety of their village where they get to meet up with all of their loved ones who welcome them back and then they have a big old meal: a feast of celebration and communion.

This is the stress cycle in action and it's what we call completing the stress cycle: their is a stressor (the tiger), physiologic changes that help you escape the stressor, and then arrival in a place of neurologic, physical and social safety. It’s pretty awesome that there is a feast at the end of it. (Check out the fun video showing different versions of the stress cycle: for our ancestors, and for us today).

Let's fast forward to today. Now we don't have tigers just laying around in my neighborhood, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting Virginians. What we do have is stress: the stress of cell phones that continually ping in our pockets, the email inbox, the to-do list, the mental burden of the things that we need to do for work, for ourselves, for our kids, for school, for the future. Expectations, demands, fear of failure and sleep deprivation: This is our stress.

Once again this stress creates physiologic changes within us. Our hearts start beating faster and faster; the adrenaline, the cortisol they both are spiking. We tense up (ooooh, I can always feel the in the muscles in my neck knotting up), but we have nowhere to run.  We can't escape the mental burden and we cannot out run it. We can't get to a place where we finally feel like we are safe and in the community with our villagers we are unable to complete the stress cycle to get to the place of healing and safety and connection.

Now in the course of trying to escape the stress and the discomfort that comes with it, we look to other activities to escape:

We might be too tired to run, so lay on the couch, we may scroll on social media to find a distraction from the stress. We turn to food because it's amazing to distract and comfort (that's why in the south we call it comfort food). The thing is that it doesn't fix the problem which is the stress. Trying to escape the stress doesn't work.

A lot of the work around stress eating is looking at trying to change our eating patterns: we try to change the foods that we're eating, or the amount, or the location. Once again, it's not about the food. We can change what we're eating but if we're still feeling stressed and not knowing what to do with the stress, we're going to look for other ways to escape so maybe you're eating a little bit differently but you're scrolling on the Internet even more, or you're having sleepless nights as the stress just continues to follow you to bed.

So what can we really do to address stress eating?

We must first acknowledge that the problem is the stress, not the food. Address the stress. Now I can hear people saying, “But stress is just a part of my life. There are so many things I cannot get rid of.” OK let's talk about that.

Here’s a challenge for you:

I want you to write down what it is that is stressful for you. What are the situations and people where you find you experience stress?

What are the things that you think you must do? Inevitably when we think that we have to do something or we must do it they're stressed behind it. 

Why is that stress or that pressure there? 

Play around a little bit: What if you just didn't do it? What would happen then? Journal about it because this is when all the things come up: all the reasons that we are going to justify what we're doing right now. 

I know there is a reason that you are doing what you are doing right now: it works for you. Is it because you think you will let someone down if you don’t do it? That you’ve committed? That someone is expecting it?

What works for us (why we're continuing to do it) is because we're afraid of the feeling we're afraid of what would happen if we didn't do it.

What would happen if we didn't let email and text pings have such an important in our lives? What if we just stop having a to do list? Oh but I would never get anything done!


If you needed to do list to remember to do it is it really that important?

This is all about understanding the stress.

Write it all down to get it out of your head (ditch that mental burden), and feel free to share with me if you'd like to have a conversation: [email protected] (please reference Episode 80/Stress Eating).

And then, next week, we are going to continue on with what to do about the stress. But first.... don't skip this step: you've gotta get curious and understand it.


Calling all Healthcare Professionals: I'm so glad you're here, to benefit yourself, your family, and your patients. The CE experience for this Podcast is powered by CMEfy - click here to reflect and earn credits:

Check out the Family in Focus with Wendy Schofer, MD Podcast!

Listen Now!

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.