Feeding Is an Ineffective Way to Deal with Stress

Written by: Eva Kova─Ź, Univ. graduate of Psychology

Different people cope with stress in different ways. Many times, the coping strategy also depends on the problem itself. However, everyone still has their own general pattern for coping with stress.

In general, we can cope with stress in two manners:

  • first is oriented towards the problem
  • the other to one's emotions.

We talk about strategies that focus on the problem, when we try to change stressful situation by searching for information about how to act and resist reacting exaggeratedly. We weigh the ways to confront problems, look for sources of our problems, and try to eliminate them. Problem-oriented strategies are usually more successful, but also require more energy in a short term.

Emotion-oriented manner is more about using the defense mechanisms to lower the negative emotional impact of stress. People who cope with stress in such a way prefer to ignore the problem, deny its significance and even existence. They solve problems with inappropriate emotional reactions (anger, rage, tears) by compensating unpleasant feelings by consuming food.

Resorting to food is one of the inefficient ways of coping with stress. It's about trying to shut down negative feelings and inconvenient emotions by reaching out for food. We, psychologists, call that behavior emotional eating. An emotional eater eats food to feel better and counterbalance negative feelings. Symbolically, they feed their emotional needs, not the real hunger. Reaching out for food makes them feel good, but only in a short term.

Solving problems and releasing tension by eating is not efficient, because it leads to avoidance. One wouldn't solve the source of the problem in such a way, but actually make the source of the problem itself trigger their need for food as well when unpleasant feelings arise.

Here's another interesting fact: typically emotional eating triggers need for certain food or type of foods with a certain taste. But when we are physiologically hungry, we would eat almost anything, just to fill up our stomach.

Research shows that emotional eating pushes us to highly caloric food, such as sweets and fast food. Also, eating is not rationally controlled as with the physiological hunger. Feeding our emotions usually ends up with a full stomach, even so full that it makes us sick.

We often feel guilty and have a bad conscience because of emotional eating. The consequences are even stronger emotional distress and reinforced inefficient coping strategies. It gets us into a cycle by bringing new sources of stress: feeling of inefficiency, increase of body mass, lower self-esteem, feelings of guilt and so on.

What Can We Ourselves Do to Learn Constructive Strategies for Coping with Stress and Prevent Emotional Eating?

1. First step towards emotional eating prevention is to find the triggers of such behavior. Try to find out what circumstances and places or what feelings are present when the need for emotional eating occurs. When you know the triggers, they will be easier to control.

2. Being aware of the emotions that lead you to eating, you have to learn a different, more efficient way to express and process them.

3. Try to understand what brings you down and leads to negative feelings. Think about the real source of the problem. Be critical and real. Try to find positive things you can learn in the situation.

4. Make an action plan for coping with stress. Even though it's hard, set some goals and focus your energy on solving the problem instead of running away from it.

5. If the source of the problem is difficult to solve, then try to find alternatives. E. g. what to focus on to reduce influence of the stressor on yourself and find good feelings and contentment in other more positive situations.

6. Ask for advice from your friends, acquaintances, family, or professionals. Don't feel weak because you consult someone. Sometimes you have to let others light up your problem from their point of view and with their knowledge. Situations many times turn out way less horrible as in your own interpretation. On top of all, it is important to have  good support from close ones in difficult moments.

7. Change your lifestyle to a healthier one. Go do some sports instead of eating, meet people, do things that make you happy. And when you really cannot resist the urge to eat because of stress, pick fruit instead of sweets.

8. Consider sleep as a crucial factor for regeneration of your body, so try to get enough quality sleep (from 6 to 8 hours a night). You can relax using psychological exercises that help you remove tension caused by stress, problems and everyday strains.