Blog post graphic with modern flowers with the title, What to do when Negative Thoughts Result in Stress Eating, written on a beige background.

I would bet that most people view stress as a negative; for my clients who struggle with stress eating, that’s especially true.

The human mind has a funny way of making things worse. When you feel that it will be hard to succeed, it usually is. I’ll show how your negative thoughts manifest and give you steps to deal with them to prevent the problem. For food not to be a coping tool, you need to change those thoughts from negative to neutral. Viewing them clearly as they are and looking forward towards your future goals is the answer.

A negative thought is not the same thing as a negative attitude.

Most of us have experienced our share of stressful events in our lives. These can be work-related or personal. The stress that comes with these adverse events is often labeled as being negative thoughts, but they are both.

Your mind can easily conjure up a scary image of what could happen if this or that happens, etc. This picture is in your head and says, “If that’s true, then I’m going to need something to eat.” And that’s what makes it so difficult. It’s a coping mechanism.

1. How negative thoughts work.

So how does this work? How does the mind do that? Your mind creates a scenario that could occur if that negative thought were true. Let’s say you have been thinking negatively about being fired from your job. You could create a scenario in which you lose your home, you don’t have much money, and you become homeless. When the thought comes to mind, an image of what could happen appears, and pressure builds.

Your blood starts to leave your brain. It flows down to the rest of your body like you’re a zombie. But you’re not a zombie. It’s difficult to think clearly because stress is flooding the brain areas associated with stress. This is what it’s like when you are trying to cope with stress by eating – you are not fully present or making choices – it’s an automatic process. Now it’s time for coping mechanism number two: food.

2. Food is security.

What’s your mind’s second coping mechanism to cope with stress? It uses food. When you think negatively about being fired from your job, the connection with food leads to a desire for food. You see your mind’s picture of what could happen to you, leading you straight to comfort food. What happens then is that instead of thinking about the future or the present, you’re focused on how much comfort food can fulfill those feelings or needs for security because of all this stress.

3. Food is a distraction.

Eating is a coping mechanism to calm and soothe and cope with stress. When people suffer from stress eating, they eat comfort food because it calms them down and takes away the stress. But the problem with eating this way is that it does not resolve the issue of stress any more than rubbing a sore knee does because you still have a sore knee, only now you’ve added food to your list. The issue remains.

Negative thoughts and stress eating solutions.

So, how do you make this not happen to you? Here are some helpful suggestions:

1. List your stressors.

Make a list of all your stressors. Once the list is complete, divide them into those within your control and those out of your control. If there are any items on the list that you feel are in your control, write down how you would try to change these things if they were yours to change. Next to each item that’s out of your control, write down what it could be if it were in your control. For example, If the only thing out of your control is the weather, then write down what you can do to prepare for this. But if it’s something else, like your boss is a micro-manager, then list things you can change within your work environment to improve it.

2. List your negative thoughts.

Write down the negative thoughts that you have most often. Once these are written down, look at them and ask yourself what they mean. Is there a reason why you’re thinking this? Is it true?

Think of a time when you faced similar stress and how you dealt with it. This will give you insight into what you’re thinking and why. Write down these things in your journal so that when negative thoughts come to mind, you can look at them and ask yourself, “Is this true?”

3. Challenge your negative thoughts.

Finally, don’t let negative thoughts about something outside your control remain unchallenged. A positive way to deal with them is to challenge them and say to yourself, “If it were true, then this would occur.” For example: “If I dropped dead tomorrow, then all my friends would say they will miss me.” When this is genuinely true (and it might not always be), the mind will believe it and do everything possible to ensure it happens.


So, remember, negative thoughts are not the same as negative attitudes. One is an attitude; one is a thought. But they are related to each other. So, if you have the attitude, “I’m negative all the time,” that will lead you to think negative thoughts about things that may or may not be accurate. A habit of positive thinking will help you to avoid putting these negative thoughts into your mind, which could lead you to harmful coping behaviors like comfort eating.