Disclaimer: the intent of this article is to give proactive suggestions to women to help prevent seeking self-comfort from food during occasional increases in chronic stress. For a list of behaviors that may indicate the need to consult with a professional regarding emotional eating, please see the bottom of this article.
About two years ago, I noticed that my cookie and wine indulgence had unexpectedly started to take place every night, which was unlike me.
After a few days of wondering what had caused this nightly influx of treats, it suddenly hit me: for the last two weeks, I had been avoiding a tough conversation with someone that I cared about.
I was struggling because I’d kept putting off what I knew to be a long overdue but very difficult discussion, delaying it as I felt the timing wasn’t right. This caused a series of problems which ended up contributing to my intake of a nightly cookie and glass of wine.
First, it was stressful. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that avoiding a conversation — especially one that we know is going to be difficult — weighs heavily on us. I was unable to think about much else, other than what I was going to say, how I was going to say it, and nervously anticipating what the outcome might be.
Second, I was suppressing my emotions. Keeping emotions bottled up is absolutely exhausting and, in my personal experience, always shows up in another area of my life. Suppressing emotions drains my energy, making it hard for me to want to exercise, it causes me to reach for more treats to eat, and it makes me irritable.
Last, I was using a ton of willpower to refrain from engaging in this conversation. By relying heavily on willpower to hold my tongue, it left me with much less than usual by the time evening rolled around.
Experiencing stress, suppressing emotions, and leaning on willpower more than I usually do, left me far more susceptible to the temptation of treats at night. My willpower was too zapped to allow me to say no to the treats, when I would have been able to otherwise. I was also using the nightly cookie and a glass of wine as self-comfort, to help me deal with another day gone by without having engaged in a desperately needed conversation.
In my experience working with women in Strongest You Coaching, the most common reasons that they find themselves reaching for food when they aren’t hungry are because they are either experiencing an uptick in chronic stress, or because they are suppressing emotions.
On a daily basis, we all experience certain levels of stress that are not only completely normal, but can even be healthy to a certain degree. The kind of stress that I’m referring to in this article, however, is stress which leaves you feeling upset, worried, tense, and exhausted. Perhaps it’s because you have a kid who isn’t sleeping well, because your car broke down, or because you’re operating under a tight deadline at work. While these stressful situations can cause you to feel less-than-your-best, they are also largely out of your control.
For many women, stress can result in turning to treats to provide themselves with self-comfort if they don’t have other coping strategies in place.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to cope that don’t involve food or drink.
My morning ritual is the thing that seems to have the biggest positive impact on my overall mental well-being. This is something that I do as a proactive approach to stress. It consists of coffee outside on the deck, tarot cards, music, my journal, and a book. I sip coffee, listen to music, pull cards to prompt introspection, and do some reading and writing.
Even if I have to be up incredibly early, I allow myself time to do this. Some days it’s an abbreviated version, and other days I let it go on a little longer. But my morning ritual — in some capacity — is one of my non-negotiables. This is self-care space that I’ve intentionally carved out to provide myself with the opportunity to notice how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, and to write it all down without distraction. I’ve noticed that the more descriptive I am, the more it helps.
Your morning ritual will likely look different based on the time you have available and your unique circumstances, but here are a few examples from my Strongest You Coaching ladies:
Taking a few minutes to center yourself, block distractions, and notice how you’re feeling without any judgment can be very helpful regardless of whether you’re feeling good or not-so-good. The most important thing here is to acknowledge your emotions, rather than suppress them.
Getting outside, taking some deep breaths, and moving your body in a non-stressful way can work wonders. I find that taking a walk helps me think more clearly, and it also helps bring my stress levels down. Additionally, a change of environment can be incredibly powerful if you are finding yourself tempted to dig through the pantry.
Whether you have five minutes or a full hour, a leisure walk can be great.
When I’m feeling really stressed, one of the most helpful things for me is talking through it. Confiding in a friend, partner, family member, or therapist can feel extremely good. There may be times when you just need to talk things through, and you don’t want or need feedback. Expressing that to a friend or confidant is something I’ve done in the past. I’ll say something like, “I could really use a listening ear right now. Would you mind if I talked through some things with you, without providing any feedback?” The people who are close to you will be happy to help.
If talking to someone doesn’t feel comfortable for you, consider writing it all down. The more descriptive you can be, the better. Let your thoughts flow without judgement, and know that they aren’t indicative of your self-worth.
When it comes to occasional eating due to stress, the best things that you can do are to express how you’re feeling, and put some stress-management techniques into place ahead of time. By being proactive, you can create a list of things which you find comforting and that serve your highest self, and that cover different ranges in the amount of time that they take. For example, if you are short on time, stepping outside to take 10 slow, deep breaths to re-center yourself, or shooting a text to your best friend can be wonderful. If you have more time, consider calling a friend or meeting for coffee, taking a bath, or going for a drive and singing your favorite songs.
I asked Anastasia Pollock, Clinical Mental Health Counselor, to share some signs that may indicate that there is a deeper psychological issue for which someone may want to seek professional help. These include:
If you recognize yourself in these behaviors, and need help finding a therapist with specific specialties, you can go to www.GoodTherapy.org to find a professional near you.
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