The Stress of Emotional Eating

Jan 27, 2024

How to Stop Stress Eating and Find Better Ways to Cope

Stress eating is a common problem that many people struggle with. It’s when we use food to cope with uncomfortable emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, boredom, or grief.

Food can provide a temporary relief from these feelings, but it can also lead to guilt, shame, and more stress in the long run.

So how can we break the cycle of stress eating and find healthier ways to deal with our emotions?

In this post, we’ll share three not-so-obvious strategies that can help you stop stress eating and feel more in control of your eating habits.

Strategy #1: Identify your triggers

A trigger is anything that sets off a pattern of behaviour, such as stress eating. It could be a sight, a smell, a person, or an emotion.

For example, you might notice that you always reach for the cookie jar after a stressful phone call with your boss, or when you feel lonely at night.

The first step to stop stress eating is to become aware of your triggers and how they affect you.

One way to do this is to give yourself permission to overeat, but treat it as an experiment.

Use a worksheet to document what happens and how you feel before, during, and after you overeat. Try to be as neutral and non-judgmental as possible.

This will help you identify your triggers, as well as the consequences of stress eating.

Once you know your triggers, you can decide what to do about them. If you can avoid or change them, great. If not, you can use the next strategy to interrupt the trigger/behaviour cycle.

Strategy #2: Pick a thing before the thing

This strategy is simple but effective. It involves picking an action (a thing) that you’ll always do before you engage in stress eating (the other thing).

The idea is to disrupt the automatic response of stress eating and give yourself a chance to choose a different behaviour.

The action you pick should be something that nourishes you in some way, such as:

  • Drink a glass of water
  • Call or text a friend
  • Do some stretches
  • Listen to a song
  • Write down three emotions you’re feeling

You can have a menu of options to choose from, depending on your mood and situation.

The key is to actually do the thing before the thing, and not skip it. To help you remember, you can post your menu on your fridge, kitchen cabinet, or anywhere else you’re likely to see it before eating.

Sometimes, doing one thing before the thing is enough to break the cycle of stress eating. Other times, you might still want to eat after doing the thing. That’s okay.

But remember, you’ve already done something good for yourself in the process. So go ahead and have that snack, and don't stress out about it, because one snack doesn't make or break your life, and it doesn't say anything about you as a person.

If you do go ahead with the snack, treat it like you're sitting down for a meal. Portion out the amount you want to eat in a bowl or on a plate, sit down at a table without distractions, and enjoy it slowly and mindfully.

Strategy #3: Practice self-compassion

Self-compassion is when you treat yourself with kindness and understanding, especially when you’re struggling or feeling bad.

Many people who deal with stress eating have negative self-talk running through their heads before, during, and after they overeat.

They might say things like:

  • “I’m such a failure for doing this.”
  • “I have no willpower or self-control.”
  • “I hate myself for eating so much.”

But here’s the thing: Negative self-talk can actually make stress eating worse. It can trigger a release of dopamine, a brain chemical that’s involved in habit formation and addiction.

So the more you beat yourself up for stress eating, the more likely you are to do it again.

That’s why self-compassion is a powerful tool to stop stress eating. It can help you interrupt the cycle of negative self-talk and guilt, and replace it with positive and supportive messages.

Self-compassion has three components:

  • Mindfulness: Being aware of what you’re doing, thinking, feeling, and experiencing, but without judging yourself for it.
  • Common humanity: Recognizing that you’re not alone, and that just about everyone goes through what you’re dealing with at some point.
  • Self-kindness: Being gentle and caring with yourself, and giving yourself what you need.

Here are some examples of how you can practice self-compassion when you’re about to stress eat or after you’ve done it:

  • Mindfulness: “I’m feeling really anxious and stressed right now. And I really want to eat that whole pizza…”
  • Common humanity: “That’s okay. Many people feel this way and struggle with stress eating.”
  • Self-kindness: "Take a deep breath. Whether or not I choose to eat right now, it’s going to be okay, and it doesn't mean I'm ______(a failure, weak, etc.)."
  • Mindfulness: “I just ate a whole bag of chips and I feel awful.”
  • Common humanity: "A lot of people are probably feeling this way right now, especially with everything that’s going on in the world."
  • Self-kindness: “It’s okay. I’m human and I make mistakes. Eating a bag of chips doesn’t define who I am or what I’m capable of.”

Self-compassion doesn’t mean giving yourself a free pass to eat whatever you want. It means giving yourself a break and acknowledging that stress eating is a normal and understandable response to difficult emotions.

But it’s not the only response, or the best one.

By using the strategies shared in this post, you can learn to recognize and overcome stress eating, and find better ways to cope with your emotions.

You can also get support from a coach who can help you develop these skills and habits, and guide you towards your health and fitness goals.

If you’re interested in working with a coach, check out my online coaching. I personally design an individual approach to help you eat better, move better, and feel better, no matter what life throws at you.

I hope you found this post helpful and informative. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below or email [email protected] to get in touch.

And remember, you’re not alone in this. You have the power to stop stress eating and start living your best life, and there are people who are ready to help you however you need, you just need to ask.

Not sure where to start with your change journey?

Check out my workshops and coaching programs!

What I Offer
Stay connected with exclusive offers and new program announcements!
Join my mailing list to receive updates on upcoming programs, exclusive deals, and informative content.
Don't worry, I will NOT fill your inbox with annoying constant emails, you'll only get big news!

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