We’ve all done it: you get dumped, or things are piling up at work, and suddenly that freshly bought pint of Ben & Jerry’s is empty. Now you feel guilty for eating something “bad”—which only stresses you out more!
Stress eating, also called emotional eating—or just “eating your feelings”—is pretty much what it sounds like: eating because you’re stressed, not because you’re hungry. You probably already know that overeating can be a health risk, and that’s not helping—so what can you do now?
There are two main things to think about here: managing your stress level, and maintaining a good relationship with food.
Managing your stress level
If you’re eating because of stress, then managing your stress will naturally help you manage your eating. Techniques you use to manage stress are called coping skills. Stress eating is one example of a coping skill; we do it because it makes us feel better in the moment.
Coping skills can be healthy or unhealthy. Usually what makes them unhealthy is when we rely on a single coping skill too much. For example, most people can drink a beer now and then to relax, but if that’s your go-to every time you’re stressed, it will likely become a problem for you. Stress eating is the same way—it’s probably harmless every now and then, but if you’re doing it every time you’re stressed, it’s going to cause problems for you.
So don’t beat yourself up over eating your feelings this time. But next time, try a deep breathing exercise, write in a journal, or do some yoga instead. The more coping skills you have in your stress management toolbox, the more balanced you’ll be—and health is all about balance.
Your relationship with food
Food is something we need to survive. It provides nutrients that keep us alive and healthy. It reminds us of home and makes us feel safe… and of course, it tastes good. There’s nothing wrong with any of that; food should be something we enjoy, not something we feel guilty about.
But sometimes our relationship with food becomes unhealthy. We start to see food as a “magic bullet” that can solve all our problems—or we see it as an enemy that we need to avoid. There are a few things we can do to bring our relationship with food back to a healthy place:
- Ignore your feelings of guilt and shame. Shame is an emotion that lets us know when we’re doing something socially unacceptable. But your eating habits are no one else’s business! If your eating habits aren’t lining up with your own goals, you can recognize that and make adjustments without feeling guilty or ashamed about it.
- Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Learn to recognize the difference between feeling hungry vs. wanting to eat to change your emotional state. If you’re having a hard time telling the difference, try eating something filling and then wait a little while. If the drive to eat doesn’t go away, it might be more about emotion than hunger.
- Learn to enjoy more nutritious foods. That might sound impossible, but there are lots of tasty foods that are also good for you. And they’re usually more filling than junk food, so you end up eating less and feeling more satisfied—without having to think about the amount you’re eating at all.
If your relationship with food gets out of control, it can lead to an eating disorder. Eating disorders are the deadliest type of mental illness, and they can be difficult to treat. If you’re worried that you might have an eating disorder, take our eating disorder screen and read on to learn more about what eating disorders are and how they’re treated.