Struggling with stress eating may go something like this…
If I could…
…find the right way to eat, I won’t have cravings.
…gain some more willpower, I would be stronger and I could resist my urges.
…detox from addictive/sugary foods, I would be free.
…stick with something long enough for it to take.
… just get to the bottom of why I struggle with stress eating, I wouldn’t have a food problem.
What’s so wrong with this way of thinking?
These all seem like reasonable thoughts, if you buy into a diet mentality that focuses on food being the problem.
But, when we’re working on healing stress eating from the viewpoint of Conscious Eating, it’s a whole other world out there!
Fortunately, it’s a world of helpful information, growth oriented and focused on healing your relationship with yourself, food and your body.
Struggling with stress eating isn’t about food
The struggle with stress eating begins with a shift away from focusing on food. Instead, developing a richer awareness of your emotions, what to do with them and how to calm your mind and body is the pathway to long-term change so you don’t need stress eating anymore.
You probably have a pretty good idea about what “healthy” eating is. Since you’re reading this online, you have access to lots of great nutritional information from a variety of sources here and here.
The old way of thinking is that if you get the nutrition just right, you’ll have more control, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s an illusion that information instills motivation. The illusion leads to a belief that you’ll stop struggling with stress eating by changing what you eat.
Relationships are complicated
If it was this easy you would have accomplished this already. Relationships are complicated and your relationship with food and stress are both multi-layered. And, when you combine the two the layering is doubled!
The problem is that making sense of emotional experiences and translating them into language or feelings is sometimes complicated. But, when it’s difficult to quickly make sense of the feeling this is when struggling with stress eating happens. Stress eating is calming and when you can think of it as one way to calm yourself, it can help to relieve some of the shame, guilt or regret about it so that you can explore other ways to calm and feel better without mindlessly stress eating.
A lot of the time getting specific about how you feel is what helps. On the surface – ‘I’m mad or angry’ states how you feel. But, to prevent stress eating you’ll need to put a finer point on it like; ‘I’m feeling frustrated and disappointed that my thoughts and feelings aren’t being acknowledged and taken into account when a decision is made.’
That level of emotional awareness requires a different type of response than one that is simply ‘anger.’ It requires you to take some time for you to focus on your needs. When you assess what you need, take into consideration what the best choice, so your stress level decreases you probably won’t be thinking about food too much.
If your attention does shift to food, it could be for comfort, distraction, habit, etc. That’s okay since now you know what you need and you have the ability to choose to eat or not.
You can assess your hunger or fullness.
You can consciously assess if you want to eat and consider how you might feel and if it will help you. This is where you can freely choose if it’s wanted you want or if there’s something else that would feel better.
The good news is that these are all decisions you are consciously making, one feeling at a time.
This increased knowledge or awareness is at the heart of struggling with stress eating.
When you develop the skills to calm your stress reactions you also interrupt the cycle of stress eating. And as you learn more about your internal reactions and how to calm them, you’ll be well on your way not struggling with stress eating anymore.
Emotional awareness is the antidote to struggling with emotional eating.
Emotions can feel overwhelming, but let’s break it down into more manageable parts.
How do you create the emotional space between yourself and food, so you can figure out what you need?
The key to emotional mastery is learning the skills for greater emotional awareness, so you reduce your stress and prevent any struggling with stress eating before it starts.
3 ways to change your relationship with stress and stop struggling with stress eating.
1. Reconnect with your sense of calm.
There’s a part of you, no matter how small or how long it’s been since you’ve experienced it, that can feel a sense of calm. At least once a day, create some space to be quite and notice how you feel when there isn’t anything pressing happening. The idea is to create a restful, calm sense of self.
Creating a restful place inside yourself is a process. No one is perfect and sometimes tapping into your calm place is easier than at other times.
Calming yourself is a skill that you can learn at any time in life and it gets easier with practice.
The goal is to give your mind and heart a little space so you can increase your emotional awareness.
2. Identify the feeling that most frequently leads to stress eating.
The next step is to identify the feeling or feelings you experience before struggling with stress eating.
When you begin the process of identifying your feelings you’ll most likely think of general feelings like, mad, sad, angry which is a good starting point.
Now that you’ve got the general feeling identified, you can spend a little time breaking it down into smaller parts. Maybe thinking about the feeling from different aspects of the feeling as you fine tune how you really feel.
One tool a lot of my coaching clients use is to look up alternative words in a thesaurus.
Use the thesaurus to increase your emotional vocabulary and try on, so to speak, some of the feelings. Look up the dictionary definition and see if it fits how you feel. You might even find different words as you do a little investigation into your feelings.
The more specific the feeling, the closer you get to taking care of your emotions and struggling with stress eating less.
This part of the process can be both a relief and fun too. It’s very freeing to know how to describe your feeling since it helps you to know what to do to feel better. It gives you direction for improving your relationship with yourself.
3. Develop your emotional mastery plan
Changing the way, you take care of yourself-from struggling with stress eating to identifying and managing your emotion is life changing. When you have options about how you respond to your emotions is true freedom that dissolves stress.
You are in control, not vague and confusing feelings that lead to stress eating. The result is that you’re back in control and struggling with stress eating isn’t an issue.
A plan for identifying your feelings can look like this:
- Acknowledge that discomfort you feel.
- Take a deep breath and give yourself some space. If it’s not an emergency, you don’t need to treat it like one, you have time.
- Identify are you hungry, tired, thirsty? If it’s not physical then…
- Identify what you’re feeling uncomfortable about – is it work, home, or your relationship with yourself?
- What is the “big” overall feeling? This feeling could be the overall summary of how you’re feeling.
- You can then break it down into smaller more nuanced feelings and see if something more specific fits.
- Think about what you need and what type of self-care will help you move forward and take action for your well-being.
- Ask yourself do you need to open up to more possibilities?
- Is a conversation with someone needed?
- Do you need to use a different set of skills when the feeling comes around again?
As you read this in protocol it’s a very linear step-by-step list. But as we know emotions aren’t that structured at all! They are messy and confusing and may feel very strong one instant and then morph into something else a few minutes later.
The process for identifying your feelings is often one of mulling things over time. You can come back to it when you realize another aspect later.
As you work on your emotional mastery your ability to name your emotions and calm them will get easier, faster and a lot less stressful.