This week is International Stress Awareness Week: 5th to 9th November
I know, I know.... there's a day for everything BUT with our stress levels reaching an all time high, this is a week I feel is really important. I'll bet you a fiver right now you've felt stressed at some point in the past week?!
And I get asked all the time. Why is it I eat when I get stressed? Why is it I only want chocolate ? How do I stop eating my feelings?!
Ordinarily, stress and digestion don't go together. When we are stressed, our body releases adrenalin, as part of our automatic stress response - the fight or flight response.
The aim of this response is to increase our level of alertness. Whether the stress is physical or emotional, our body is preparing to either stand up and fight it, or leg it.
Digestion at this time is not important and may explain why some of us experience a drop in appetite, stomach cramps, a desire to go to the loo, experience nausea or even sickness.
This is because your body is prioritising its work. Your blood will be going to your brain and muscles (for the fight or leg it options). Your body will be releasing glucose into the blood stream so you have the energy available and ready to go at the drop of a hat.
If there is food in your gut, you body may try to get rid of it in the quickest way possible. It doesn't make sense to get more food into your body, which will simply need more work to digest it, hence your appetite may fall.
For good digestion, we need calm. It's why we should stop for lunch, ideally sit down and take our time because any anxiety that surrounds eating can impair digestion. It may explain why you feel bloated after eating or you may not actually remember even eating!
So why do some of us want to eat when we are stressed?
Well, there are different types of stress: short term and long term (other wise known as chronic stress)
Before we go on, let's determine exactly what stress is. It's a state of emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. You know, that ever increasing pressure that builds as you juggle work, the kids, the house, your parents, bills, that to do list, unanswered emails, a 1,000 phone notifications, with never enough time in the day.
The fight or flight response I have described above is what happens in the short term; it's an acute stress response.
Acute stress comes and goes (usually). It helps protect the body and keeps us on our toes. Hence we step up to the plate and get the job done.
What most of us are dealing with however is chronic stress. It may be due to a chronic lack of time, long working hours, over reliance on mobile devices (never switching off), poor sleep, lack of exercise and down time, financial worries, health concerns, job insecurities and so on.
How often do you ask someone how they are and they say they are tired and / or feeling stressed out? How often do you feel or say this?
It's almost becoming the norm to say 'I'm working tonight or this weekend', I haven't got time to do xxx (go to bed earlier, exercise, shop for food, cook healthy meals etc)
THIS is when our body sends out alarm signals that we are perhaps working too hard, not stopping and beginning to run on empty. But when the symptoms of stress and anxiety are there all the time, we learn to ignore them. There's an element of everyone feels like this so it must be OK.
And you may feel stuck, not knowing how to change the situation.
So you feel this NEED for the sweet stuff, wine or coffee, more and more often.
We KNOW it's not ideal and probably not what we intended to do but there is this almost primal instinct that makes us do it.
Going back to the title of this blog "Stress + Food = Less Stress?" You know this isn't true. You know getting that pizza on the way home for dinner won't really help you feel less stressed. It won't really change anything apart from filling your belly. So why do we do it?
The primal instinct is actually a pretty accurate explanation of what's going on.
Despite our food environment being unrecognisable compared to 100 years ago, we still have active components of our ancient, reptilian brain from when we were running about in caves.
Feeling tired (as is often associated with chronic stress) and hungry would have meant we were vulnerable, when the survival of the fittest game was being played. How could we run away from the Sabre toothed tiger if we were running low on energy?
So the brain says 'you need more energy, go eat'
The problem we have these days is we don't have to go hunt for it. It's under our noses ALL the time. Literally everywhere we go. We are tempted by high energy (high sugar and high fat foods) because they are there and because the brain says you need them for survival.
OK, so not answering that email late at night is not a life and death situation, but it can feel like it when we are in a state of overwhelm.
The feel good factor
The other factor going on around food and stress is that we think it will make us feel better. We will have hard wired our brain through childhood; we seem to automatically know that certain foods can be comforting.
Did you ever fall over and cry as a child, then given a lollipop, biscuit or piece of cake to 'make you feel better'?
Check out my earlier blog here about will power and the role the feel good hormone Dopamine plays in motivating us to eat. Our brain tries to make us feel better, it's a natural response!
Of course, for anyone who has dived into the large bar of Galaxy will know, you tend to feel worse afterwards. Certainly no better.
The velvety smoothness may have taken our mind off things momentarily. The creamy, sweetness may bring a surge of calm....but then the sickly sweetness may hit. And regret kicks in.
Food is meant to taste good. We are meant to enjoy it. But when we eat for non-physical reasons (i.e. we are not truly hungry) and instead eat for comfort or for emotional reasons, you still end up feeling empty.
It's incredibly common to use food as a crutch at times of stress. If you think about it, your body is doing it's best to cope. You're ignoring the warning signs, so what is it supposed to do? Your body can't stop (you won't let it), you keep driving it forwards. Unless of course you reach burnout. Then you'll stop. But it's all a bit late then isn't it?
Stressing about eating when you're stressed only adds to the stress! Then you'll feel even worse! It really is vicious cycle.
How do you break free?
If you want to change the situation, you are probably going to have to do some serious thinking. Because it's likely you CAN change the situation, it's realising what you are in control of, what you're not in control of and what you are prepared and able to do. It's realising you may need to ask for help.
If you are aware you rely on food (and / or drink) when times are stressful, the best way to let go of the crutch is to work on the cause(s) of your stress. You know that food is not the solution but it's often the easiest option at the time.
You may find if you work on your sleep hygiene and bed time routine, your sleep will improve and you will experience fewer cravings. You may feel less hungry all the time.
If you can learn to let go of the factors worrying you that are beyond your control, you may be able to create some more head space so you can actually think about what your body needs. I meet so many people who have no idea what hunger feels like, or know how to stop when they've had enough. Chronic stress disconnects us from out body because we have learnt to tune out to what it's trying to tell us.
If you can get yourself outside, particularly into green spaces, you may feel yourself unwinding. You may learn how to sit with your thoughts rather than fight them and distract yourself with food.
Emotional eating and eating when stressed is actually incredibly common. Intuitive eating however, may offer you an alternative approach to managing your feelings without turning to food.
If you'd like to talk to me about how you can learn to create a positive and nourishing relationship with food, please do message me at firstname.lastname@example.org